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.