When Jersey Shore originally aired on MTV, from 2009-2012, a common joke was that it was a sociological experiment, or an anthropological study about guido culture. The cast had its own version of social norms, their own language (which infiltrated the rest of culture), and even an academic conference dedicated to dissecting it, a reality show in which a grown man once purposely ran headfirst into a cement wall with the intention of “winning” an argument. If we’re to keep up those academic comparisons, then Jersey Shore: Family Vacation has provided us with another course: What happens when outrageous, unrefined reality stars evolve as human beings and, well, grow up?
In Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, seven of the eight roommates reunite in a giant Miami house. The eighth, Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola, declined to participate (unsurprising considering the tumultuous, abusive relationship between her and Ronnie that was showcased in the original) but is replaced with a sex doll — one that Pauly D has customized with soundbites of Sammi’s greatest hits, a gag that manages to be simultaneously horrible and, well, kinda funny.
Coincidentally, most of these new episodes are both horrible and kinda funny, which is the Jersey Shore that we’ve all come to know. It’s impossible not to get sucked into the hilarity of Nicole (AKA “Snooki”) in a strip club, cluelessly grabbing money off the floor and shoving it into her purse; to enjoy the surprisingly charming “bromance” between Pauly D and Vinny as they share a jet ski in a montage set to “Summer” by Calvin Harris; to yell at the screen because Ronnie is again cheating, lying, and manipulating. (Another new, jarring aspect: social media. When Ronnie grinds on a woman in a club, photos immediately pop up on Instagram and fans tag his pregnant girlfriend, leading to an immediate confrontation — in past seasons she wouldn’t know about his behavior until after the shows aired.
But at the same time, everything feels a little off, slightly askew from the Jersey Shore years ago — which is what makes this season such a fascinating watch. While hungover in front of a comically large mixed drink, Nicole and Jenni talk about missing their children. Everyone still goes clubbing (though now they can afford bottle service) but Mike clutches a non-alcoholic beverage in his non-fist-pumping hand. Ronnie goes on an early-morning bender right after an overnight bender but, after forlornly staring at a balloon hat (don’t ask), he cries in a bathroom about being a bad person. It’s so clear that some have been in therapy (and Mike, who first attempted sobriety in the last season, has been in recovery and is now two years sober after relapsing) or at least picked up some useful jargon from the internet. “Vinnie is literally a trigger,” Deena says in her best “I’m wise” voice to explain why Nicole is angry.
It’s fitting that MTV has billed this not as a seventh season, but as a separate reunion series; it’s almost like the roommates want to detach themselves from their old selves. Snooki and JWoww now almost exclusively go by their real names, Nicole and Jenni, except when they slip backward. During an argument between the best friends, Nicole calls Jenni “JWoww” with the snarling bite of a person angrily calling someone an asshole. And after Nicole gets hammered and pisses in the pool (with her pants still on?), Pauly D shrugs, “Put Snooki in Miami and she’s still Snooki.” A great running gag includes the roommates riffing on Mike’s “The Situation” nickname now that he’s their sober driver and facing jail-time for tax evasion (he pled guilty and the judge allowed him to appear on the show before sentencing): “The Designation,” “The Incarceration,” and so on.
Everyone — well, except maybe Ronnie — has grown up immensely in these last few years, and I’m sure part of it is attributed to the cast watching the old footage of themselves. Jersey Shore has always been a self-aware show, with the roommates designating catchphrases or joking about past seasons. In one of the most delightful sequences in season four, Vinny and Pauly D make fun of what guido caricatures they were in the first season, referencing “those guidos on TV that be trying too hard.” In Family Reunion, everyone seems hesitant to go back to that (though, before leaving, Nicole does steal the duck phone from the shore house) but they reference their shitty behavior frequently — the infamous “note” is (poorly) parodied, and they occasionally laugh about the times they’ve punched each other in the face.
A few months ago, I marathoned the whole series in a disturbingly short period of time and was struck by how everything seemed so different during the season in Italy. Everyone was a little more than usual as if they were all perpetually nervous and even quicker to anger. Even Vinny, perhaps the most widely-accepted member of the cast for being the most “normal,” seemed on edge; he eventually left the show temporarily to deal with his anxiety attacks. Part of this could be attributed to the culture shock (especially since there was controversy about Italy not wanting them there) but there was clearly something else going on.
This season, in “Sunday Vinday,” Jenni and Mike have a candid conversation about sobriety where Mike openly talks about how “bad” he was in Italy and how his withdrawal episodes were causing further problems. Jenni opens up that, a few weeks prior to Italy, her grandmother passed away and she lost a baby. “I couldn’t handle life,” she said, and explains that she was medicated with downers, which then turned into her taking uppers to combat grogginess. “I’m such a good man in my 30s because I was so fucking wild in my 20s,” Mike tells Jenni, who immediately responds with “Same.” It’s such a weirdly personal and intense conversation for the Jersey Shore that we’re used to … so MTV immediately then cuts to a side plot about Ronnie clogging the toilets.
But sober Mike is truly one of the biggest curiosities and changes to the show. Where he once would insert himself into everyone’s personal lives — sometimes even explaining his manipulative plans in the confessional — now he listens to them, nodding and doling out sensible advice. He literally puts himself between Vinny and a random girl to ensure that Vinny doesn’t cheat. He never talks to other women but talks lovingly about his college sweetheart and even goes ring shopping. And when Pauly D puts Mike through the ultimate test by inviting forever-hated former cast member Angelina to the house, the two quickly make amends over the dinner table. It’s bizarre for the first few episodes, but then it actually works with the show, juxtaposing it incredibly with past seasons.
Of course, so much of O.G. Jersey Shore is still there: Deena cries at the drop of a hat, Pauly D still has the enthusiasm of a puppy (though he laments Uber for ruining his “Cabs are here!” catchphrase), Nicole’s drunk-slurring is so bad that MTV captions it with question marks, and Jenni definitely turns a bit back into J-Woww upon Angelina’s arrival. It’s just enough to make the show as juicy and addictive as its original run, but it’s also different enough that it doesn’t feel like a boring retread. It ends up being a fascinating text in watching a reality show cast grow up on screen, showing how much people can grow and change even if they’re still drunkenly peeing in public.