There’s an easy response to the whole “Reality TV is fake” argument: Who cares? Reality TV productions are famously tight-lipped. We’ll never know if American Idol rigged its theme nights to favor certain contestants. We’ll never know if Survivor performed frontal lobotomies on the Redemption Island contestants to let Rob sail leisurely to victory. We’ll never know if Ronnie and Sammi are actually still in a love-hate relationship, or if they’re secretly a pair of Oxford-educated drama students trained according to Stanislavski’s Method who are in the middle of a years-long acting exercise. (I met them in person, and I still don’t know.)
The important thing is what’s onscreen. And onscreen, Jersey Shore is very often a funny, over-the-top farce about people who appear to be idiots but who occasionally reveal themselves as cannily self-aware personalities. Take last night’s episode, which featured a kind of through-the-looking-glass moment I can’t remember ever seeing on a reality show before. The cast has spent this season in Florence, and because they have no intellectual interest in the city that invented the Renaissance, they have been feeling bored and homesick.
So Snooki had an idea: Why not have a Jersey night here in their apartment? They pretended to be at Club Karma — the miserable watering hole where they spend their Jersey evenings. They got dressed up in “Jersey clothes.” Pauly D brought back his fictional alter ego, “Joey D,” which is really just Pauly D pretending to be Pauly D. Essentially, we were seeing the cast of Jersey Shore pretend to be the cast of Jersey Shore. At one point, The Situation even did what The Situation always does in a crowded club: He approached a girl (in this case Snooki) and didn’t so much dance with her as press against her, slowly, until she was awkwardly up against a wall. The fact that he was doing this in a mostly empty room with only their closest friends around made it feel like some kind of abstract one-act theater-in-the-round play.
I don’t know entirely what to make of the scene. It was really funny, and so meta that it could make your nose bleed. It was also kind of pitiful: These people have been flown across the world to one of the Great Old Cities in the Western World, and they can’t think of anything better to do than pretend to be at a club from their hometown — the same club, by the way, where they’ve made most of their worst mistakes. It was also fascinating: Were the cast members aware of “playing” themselves? Did The Situation purposefully take the most awkward action possible? Was he just trying to create drama, or has he been breathing the rarified air of celebrity for so long that he just doesn’t care what he does anymore?
Reality TV has failed at its most basic mission: It is not a good representation of reality. But it could be that its mission is changing? Much has been made about the fact that the current generation is almost fanatically self-absorbed. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a different thing. The Situation may be “playing” himself, but Louis C.K. is also “playing” himself on Louie. I realize you could extend this forever outwards — yes, indeed, are we not all playing ourselves, maaaaaan?? — but that doesn’t obscure the basic point. There are moments of Reality TV shows that feel interesting, and different. Can a reality show be profound? Can a reality show be art?
I don’t know. But I do know that there are moments of Jersey Shore that feel dangerous and weird and alive and ridiculous. And I know that the cumulative effect of Boardwalk Empire is stately serenity and morose beauty. It feels like one of those historical epics from the boring days of early-60s Hollywood, or an overproduced “comeback” album by a rapper-gone-corporate with a million guest stars and zero real content. Neither show is great, and neither show is terrible. There are probably at least 20 shows on television that you should watch first, and literally tens of thousands of shows you should never even pay attention to. But the contrast between the two is striking, as a snapshot of contemporary television.
On the season finale of Boardwalk Empire, someone actually said they wanted “to find out who Enoch Thompson is.” The joy of Jersey Shore is that no one ever wants to find out who The Situation is. They think they know. But they have no idea.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich