Backstage in a meeting hall on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, from the MTV reality show Jersey Shore, is changing from one outfit (purple velour, kind of a tracksuit) into another (a dress, very low-cut, very clingy-hootchie, very much her preferred style), getting ready to make an appearance in front of about 1,200 students. She's tiny, not even five feet tall, but in almost all other ways she is some kind of powerhouse. She can take a closed-fist punch in a Seaside Heights, New Jersey, beach-town bar and bounce right back, tears be damned; she can drink herself into oblivion with only an arrest record to show for it; she can wear about 10 pounds of makeup and not sink to the bottom of a hot tub under its weight; she can spend hours producing one of the fakest-looking fake tans ever, and still be proud of it; she's supergood at being on the alert 24/7 for the beefed-up gorilla juicehead of her dreams, despite failing at love repeatedly; she's super-duper good at beatin' up the beat, and fist-pumping, and suggestive pickle slurping, and smushing (or at least appearing to smush), and padding around in pink fuzzy slippers, and all the rest of it that has helped to turn Jersey Shore into the most popular show in MTV's 30-year history, with 8.5 million viewers tuning in every Thursday night to see what drunken, horny-hot, fun-time trouble she and castmates JWoww, the Situation, Deena, Pauly D, Vinny, Ronnie and Sammi will get into next.
Right now, though, Polizzi has to take a leak. Off she scampers. Meanwhile, one of her handlers, a stocky chatterbox named Bryan Monti, is sorting through a bunch of questions submitted by the Wake Forest kids for Polizzi to field in a few minutes. He's frowning. He's not liking what he's reading. "How much wood would a Snooki suck if a Snooki could suck wood?" they want to know. And, "How many Snookis does it take to screw in a light bulb?" And, "Do you swallow?" And, "What is your IQ?" And, "What state are you in?" And, "Is Vinny's dick really that big?" Clearly these questions suggest what most of the country, Jersey Shore fans or not, think of Polizzi – that she's an oversexed vacuous bubblehead if not a garden-variety simpleton idiot – but now is not the time to get into that, and into the trash they all go. Finally, Monti finds one he can get behind – "How do you suggest we could Snookify Wake Forest?" – and shouts, "OK!"
Suddenly, it's time for her to go on. She struts into the spotlight, ascends a riser, waves that cheesy glamour-girl wave of hers, and crosses the stage, soaking in all the cheering and the echoing shouts of "Snooki! We love you, Snooki!" "Hey, Snooki, you're so hot!" "Oh, my God, Snooki!" And then, for the next two hours, it's all about Snooki, her life and times, her hopes and dreams, and her answer to the question of why she's so popular: "I say what's on my mind, and I'm real. And I'm tan." The audience goes bananas.
It's everything Polizzi has ever wanted. "I've always wanted to be famous," she likes to say. Then again, it'd be nice if she didn't have to spend all those hours in front of a camera, being filmed all day and night, trapped in a house with no escape, until it almost begins to feel like torture. Or if she didn't get those nightmares. Or if people would stop calling her Snooki so much. Or if she didn't feel compelled to watch the show every time it comes on, no matter how bad it makes her feel.
"I guess I watch it just to help the ratings," she says later on. "But if I do something stupid, which is pretty much the whole time, I hate it. I just hate it. Obviously, they're only going to put the good stuff in, and the good stuff is us drunk, so all I'm seeing is me drunk and falling down. That's how I am when I party. But some of the stuff I do is, like, 'Really, Nicole?' I look like a freakin' alcoholic. I'm like, You're sweating, your makeup is running, you look gross.' I just look like shit."
If only people could see her for who she really is, as opposed to the carnival sideshow she appears to be. "When I look in the mirror, I see Nicole, I see me," she goes on. "Then I sometimes see a crazy nut job that just wants to party. So, there's two sides. I'm still understanding myself. I'm still trying to get myself. I mean, it's hard for people to see you one way, but you're really the other way, so it's kind of like, 'Who am I, who are you?' Sometimes," she says finally, "I confuse even myself."
Jersey Shore was a hit pretty much right out of the box, with viewership rising steadily throughout its 2009-2010 first- season, nine-episode run, going from 1.35 million to 4.83 million, based primarily on two things. One was how the kids on the show constantly referred to themselves as "guidos" and "guidettes," which infuriated lots of Italian-Americans, who made a big stink about it, calling it racist stereotyping, thus ensuring a sizable initial audience. Then came Episode Four, the one titled "Fade to Black," in which some meathead in a bar pops Polizzi in the face and down she goes, sobbing. Up until that moment, she had been the show's outcast, due to her drunken, slutty, vomitous behavior, but after the punch, and after the others came to her aid, everything changed. Now they were a family, sniping and snarling at each other ("from, like, 'I hate you, I hope you die,'" says Polizzi) but always coming through when it counts ("to then it's like, 'Oh, my God, I love you, I can't live without you'"). It's the only thing redeeming about the show. Family matters most. And people watched. It gave them the real-life happy ending, while allowing them to talk about how awful it all was the next day.
What's curious, though, is how Jersey Shore's popularity keeps rising. It shows no signs of leveling off. Right now, it sits at the top of the ratings pile for all shows from every cable network in the core demographic of 12-to-34-year-olds. Apparently, no one can get enough of watching Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, 25, get a rectal exam and continue his pointless bickering with hysteric girlfriend Sammi "Sweetheart" Giancola, 23; or Deena Nicole Cortese, 24, prove herself a worthy successor to despised departee Angelina Pivarnick, 23, by claiming she doesn't bang guys she just met and then doing just that; or Paul "DJ Pauly D" DelVecchio, 30, bring his drink-throwing stalker back to the house for a little reconciliation; or Jenni "JWoww" Farley, 25, pee behind a bar or act as concerned therapist for a freaked-out, post-arrest Snooki; or Vinny Guadagnino, 23, turn a big honking vuvuzela into a "grenade whistle"; or Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, 29, make yet another tiresome reference to his abs; or Polizzi posit whale sperm as the reason why the ocean is salty. And, lucky us, they're all about to pick up and take themselves to Italy, to film Season Four.
But what is it about this gang of knuckleheads that is so compelling and makes them so worth their reported paychecks of $30,000 an episode? Last year, The New Yorker spent 1,732 words on this very topic – seriously, how is it possible that a show in which the participants "don't do anything except sleep and party and drink and hook up and spend quality time with their hair" can capture so many viewers? – and eventually concluded, "Somehow." There's always the everybody-loves-a-train-wreck theory, of course, and the it's-the-end-of-the-world, sign-of-the-times theory, but even combined neither seems up to the task of justifying the size of the Jersey Shore juggernaut. Not for nothing, then, this is probably a good time to blow the dust off of old Gustave Flaubert and give him the last word: "Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions." So unless you're a competing network suffering at its hands, perhaps the best thing to do is to relax, give your brain a rest, and simply look at Jersey Shore as a kind of inexplicable natural phenomenon, much like sperm whales when they're doing their mating thing and spewing salt all over the sea.
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