Jersey Theory

24 Oct

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From the beginning of Caldwell’s chapter, “Excessive Style: The Crisis of Network Television” I was thinking about Hamlet. In act 3.2, Hamlet encourages his actors to hold up a mirror to nature with their art. So whenever someone (Caldwell) accuses an art of being tasteless, trashy, whatever negative evaluation you can come up with, I tend to think of what that reflects about us. I think that to see what is in the TV/mirror (“combination female mud-wrestling act-heavy-metal rock concert game-show with some comedy bits thrown in”, for example) as a perfect reflection is an ineffectual way of viewing. On page 20, Caldwell says that paradigms can “compete, contract, and co-exist”. With this in mind we could see “trash TV” as a dramatic response to inaccuracies reflected by highly stylized prime time TV, a rejection of too much cultural “air brushing” brought about by TV that perfects an image of an educated, beautiful society.

Caldwell opens with an example of two trashy programs being juxtaposed, but look at the juxtaposition of a show like Jersey Shore competing for viewers with Big Bang Theory. First, it should be acknowledged that Jersey Shore is on a cable channel whereas Big Bang Theory plays on CBS, so there is some disparity in viewership based solely on access. It is also important to note that Big Bang Theory and Jersey Shore vary generically — sit-com versus reality TV, respectively. It is still worthwhile to compare the different images of society reflected by each program, and what motivates the distorted image of our society projected by each.

In Big Bang Theory, we see a group of pretty nerdy dudes that somehow through their endearing quirky-ness and genius antics attract a hot girl to sometimes hang out in their apartment. The “nerds” are stylized — none are actually that unattractive. They are funny nerds, they project the typical nerdy tropes but win us over with their endearing quirky-ness. Also, no one on the show is obese, or even overweight. Any one of these dudes could slap on a suit and rock the red carpet. And the hot chick is of course, a blonde hot chick.

Then we flip the channel over the Jersey Shore. Bam. Fat people. Crazy hair, crazy make-up, f-you attitudes abound. There is no awareness of audience, no pandering. The plot of Jersey Shore consists almost entirely of night after night of partying, and interrupted by brief observations interjected from cast members, confessional-style. No one is super pretty, or super witty. They make mistakes that aren’t resolved in 30 minutes (or a whole season). They get arrested, and do things that are (to some) irredeemable. Jersey Shore emphasizes the kind of “live-ness” referenced by Caldwell on page 29. While it is not being broadcast live, it embodies the same experience. The unscripted reality creates an electric excitement from knowing that these characters are not  “photo-shopped” — this is really how they are, how they exist, look, interact. This concept of “raw-ness” prevails in reality television as a genre and could be seen as a cultural desire for more live action, perhaps a need that used to be satisfied by live theatrical performances (this should be another blog post).

Unlike Big Bang Theory, where we see people who fundamentally want us to like them, on Jersey Shore we see an insular group who seem by their actions to be nearly unaware that their may be a shocked/disapproving/enthralled audience observing their actions. The image of our society put out by Jersey Shore is vastly different from the image reflected by Big Bang Theory, yet there is overlap in the demographics they attract (age 12-34). They both do well within that demographic.

What does this tell us? Sure, Big Bang Theory isn’t Breaking Bad – which is to say, if we did this comparison with a drama, some kind of Prime Time, auteur-ey show, this would be a totally different post. What I’m interested in is the image of society that these two shows give us. One, that we are redeeming and attractive and smart (or maybe redeeming and attractive despite our smarts). The other, that we are trashy alcoholic animals. Maybe we to see both distortions in order to find a truthful middle ground, a true reflection.

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5 Responses to “Jersey Theory”

  1. Shen Xiang October 24, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    I’m interested in what role “auteurism” plays in all of this, particularly in BBT. The relevance of directorial visions are certainly more pervasive than in Jersey Shore, but to what extent? Could you elaborate? Thank you. Best wishes.

    Shen Xiang
    Yale, Cinema Studies ’14

    • Katie Hunter October 24, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

      Hey Shen — Thanks for the interesting question.

      First, as in film, we often use the term director and auteur interchangeably. but that’s a fallacy to avoid. An auteur is person who is driving creative vision behind the show — this can be an actor, writer, producer, director, stylist… Look at Sex and the City, a show now synonymous with fashion. One could argue that Patricia Field, the woman who spearheaded wardrobe for the show, was an important auteur for the series. Also in the series 30 Rock, the auteur is show’s creator, head writer and executive producer, Tina Fey. And Fey doesn’t direct any of the episodes.

      I’m actually reading an article right now by Christopher Anderson, “Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television”. It touches on the role of the auteur in a television series. The focus of the article is HBO’s evolution, and it cites one of HBO as one of the first networks to allow for an auteur to come to the foreground in a television series. The example Anderson uses is David Chase. This writer had been working in television since the 70’s, but it wasn’t until the success of The Sopranos that David was mentioned by name in magazines and articles.

      This is all to say that (a) an auteur doesn’t necessarily have to be a director and (b) most shows don’t know their auteurs by name, or have singular auteurs.

      So now to address your question. A show like BBT has the classic sit-com formula, and is filmed in a very traditional way. Its themes of quirky friendships, awkward romance, and emerging maturity/adulthood are also all fairly well-covered in many modern sit-coms and dramas. So the auteurism, or defining creative characteristics of the show seems in my viewing to come from its script. In search of an auteur for BBT, I would look at the way the dialogue is written, specifically with attention to the “nerdy” jokes, and allusions to upper level intellectual concepts.

  2. hleskosky October 24, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    I agree with you for the most part on everything you said, but the “live-ness” aspect of Jersey Shore has completely gone away with each new season. Yes, the first season they were a bunch of hot messes who weren’t rich living together, and their crazy antics were what real people at the Jersey Shore would do. But now, they’ve become such a grotesque phenomenon that they are anything but “live” or “raw.” Cast members are now paid thousands of dollars to be on the show, they’ve all exploited their reality-show fame to propel their mediocre talents (Pauly D as a DJ, Jenny having a fashion line). They are all wealthy now, but continue to portray this false sense of being “just like everyone else” (well, at least those at the Jersey Shore). In addition, MTV now works as hard as it can to milk some event during the season over as many episodes as possible, and promotes it like crazy. When Snooki got punched, the world knew about it before the episode even aired because it was on youtube. The entire last season, each episode “sneak-peaked” a big blowout between Mike and Snooki about Mike confronting Snooki’s boyfriend…and this didn’t happen until the last or second to last episode of the season. And currently, it’s taking three episodes for the audience to see one of them get arrested–though everyone knows it’s coming. The image Jersey Shore puts out of society, I think, at the beginning was believed by some people to be a general view of the American population, but because they’ve made themselves so much of a brand almost, I don’t think that can be said anymore. Though I’m sure people who hate America are happy to use them as an example of why we are terrible.
    (I’ve now demonstrated that I know far too much about Jersey Shore to be a respectable person anymore)

    • Katie Hunter October 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

      I’m totally there with you — early Jersey Shore is definitely what I was writing in reference to. Also interesting is the evolution of a TV series and what that means for its initial creative vision. Does it stick to that? Evolve? Become something else entirely?

      Looking at Jersey Shore in comparison to another MTV reality series — the Lauren Conrad franchise (i.e. Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City…) — I think Jersey Shore still retains a lot of its “live-ness” in the later episodes. Yes, the episodes have become less fast paced, and the branding that now is synonymous with each of the characters contaminates the previous “raw-ness” of the series, there is still the element of reality and the lack of the script that defines it. By the time The Hills wrapped, the characters were literally writing drama for themselves (you can look it up, it’s crazy. The Hills basically stopped being reality). They would re-film scenes that they missed in real life between characters (Check out this Lauren nail-polish debacle:

      (From an article in Entertainment Weekly)

      INTERVIEWER: Does it ever annoy you how meticulous people have gotten when watching The Hills? Take, for example, what everyone is referring to as ”nail polish-gate” — one scene showed you wearing red nail polish, but then in a scene that was presented as happening a little later that same night, the polish was gone. What happened there?

      LC: The Hills is filmed exactly the same as Laguna. So when people started picking out these very little things, it was weird to me because anyone who has worked on a reality show knows how they’re filmed. We’re not filming The Truman Show, we don’t have cameras set up all around our apartment, and they’re not with us 24/7. Basically what they’re doing is taking our lives and telling a story. For example, the night [of the nail-polish incident, while on a date with model Gavin], the cameras stopped rolling, and I went out to a club with [Gavin]. I went home and called someone [Brody], and the next day talked about it. [MTV] was like, Okay, well, we need to get that on tape, and since they’re trying to tell a story the right way, I basically had to go and call [Brody] again, have the exact same conversation on camera. I mean, it’s not lying to anyone, it’s telling what really happened, but it’s just the way they film reality shows.

      The finale of the series The Hills actually plays on the whole “what’s reality/what did we make up” thing. Kristin and Brody share a teary goodbye, and Kristin’s car drives away. Brody watches her, the Hollywood sign and a winding road behind him… THEN THE BACKDROP MOVES AND WE SEE THE WHOLE FINAL SCENE WAS ALL FILMED ON A BACKLOT!! WHAT???

      But with Jersey Shore, the only visibly “scripted” part is the editing — the producers might be probing Snooki to get drunker or make out with someone else’s boyfriend or something (I actually haven’t watched more than like 4 episodes so yeah…), MTV certainly isn’t setting things up as as much as in their other reality series.

  3. Katie Hunter October 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    Additionally, I hope everyone enjoys my Shooki (Sheldon/Snooki) face mash-up as much as I do. Because I like it a lot.

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