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Why Hit Reality-Show Casts Never Stay Happy

The Jersey Shore cast is so bored they're hurting themselves.

Jersey Shore ended its largely joyless Italy-set season last night. Snooki and Deena tried too hard to outdo past excremental and drunken accomplishments, while The Situation — once one of the show's biggest breakouts — was a mopey outcast for reasons never satisfactorily articulated. In other words: It was a hit reality show in its third season. So many wildly popular reality crazes with a regular cast (The Hills, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, The Real Housewives of New York City, The Osbournes) had the same slide in their later seasons. If this were a hit sitcom or a high-concept drama like Twin Peaks, you could blame it on the writers. But what's to blame for a reality fizzle? Vulture editor Josh Wolk and X Factor recapper Dave Holmes discussed the phenomenon.

Josh Wolk: Here's what I see as the unavoidable self-destructive arc of the long-running reality-show star: The most successful series begin with subjects who don't realize why their behavior is so funny. The audience falls in love and turns the stars' dopiest malapropisms into catchphrases. Then the interview requests pick up speed, and the press and talk-show hosts enjoy bringing up the reality stars' dopiest moments and they respond by shrugging and playing along, saying, "That's just the way I am!" And then the extracurricular opportunities start up: products to endorse; cameos on sitcoms; chances to dance/skate/sing on a reality competition show. And by season three, one of two things happen: They either are so focused on what the audience wants from them that they begin amping up their behavior so it seems like they're doing the cokehead version of an impression of themselves, or they grow visibly bored. With all the other doors opening for them, their day job becomes a chore, as if it is now beneath them.

Dave Holmes: First off, I must cop to not having watched most of this season of Jersey Shore. I checked out during season two, when all the joy got surgically removed from the proceedings. What an opportunity the producers had then! Here we had all these orange, sexually compulsive Amelia Bedelias who were suddenly super-famous; why not acknowledge their super-fame and how it changes their mating rituals? Instead we rehashed the same business and pretended that The Situation's experience in a nightclub would be the same as yours or mine. (My assumption was that everyone would tune out from this show around the same time. Do I ever not have my finger on the pulse.)

All I saw of season four were a couple of Snooki/Deena binge-drinking/cuca-flashing moments, all of which seemed mirthless and obligatory. And I caught one moment in which Snooki, dumped yet again by Jionni, got drunk in the morning, danced alone in a restaurant, and explained to the other customers that she was dancing out her heartbreak. I remember thinking, Is this an audition monologue I am watching?

I am reminded of those grim final days of Newlyweds, in which Nick and Jessica were clearly no longer getting along, and Jessica went full r-word to maximize her screen time. More than two seasons is indeed too long to be a reality star, especially when your job is to be an idiot. One simply runs out of dumb things to say, and has to feign surprise in the fact that light switches turn lights off and on. (This rule does not apply to shows in which the stars have jobs. Dog the Bounty Hunter can bounty-hunt and Rachel Zoe can recommend sweaters to people for as long as they choose; their jobs inform and deepen their personae.) (That's Rachel Zoe's job, right? Recommending sweaters?)

JW: Maintaining the level of popularity that these people achieve is entirely predicated on them never wavering from the very specific level of buffoonery and naïveté with which they first burst on the scene. Too much and it's faking it; too little and it's boring. Viewers want the kind of consistency out of them that Lorne Michaels wants out of a Saturday Night Live recurring sketch: Do what you always do, just sometimes do it at a bar, sometimes do it at an airport, and sometimes do it with a guest star, but whatever you do, don't forget to say your three catchphrases and fall backwards through a wall or lick someone's face or whatever it is that cues people that it's time for "Weekend Update."

And yet, because there are all these other opportunities being offered to them, the reality stars start to think they are made for better things. And yes, there may be more profitable things in store: But better? No, just things that showcase their puddingheadness in a different forum, and that only makes sense when their Project Zeroes exist. Once that goes away, these otherwise uncompelling people's allure magically vanishes. It's tragic and cruel, really, that their reality successes beget opportunities that give the illusion of their being bigger than their original shows; the reality is that it just means that they are exactly the right size for their present show. Oh, for the intervention of, say, Survivor's Gervase or Joe Isuzu, to sit every cast down in their third seasons and say, "You don't understand: This is it! This is what you are good at! You will not be the next country hitmaker or action star or have your own sitcom! Just keep fighting/being confounded by doorknobs/pissing on small animals and do not think about it!"

DH: This phenomenon is tiresome enough when the reality stars' personal brands are drunkenness and/or idiocy, but it's just plain exhausting when the person is famous for being unpleasant.

Obviously the prime example is Simon Cowell, who has made a fortune being peevish and has now extended his brand with The X Factor. Certainly his criticisms helped make American Idol a success, but I think he thinks that's the whole reason we tuned in. That's the only way I can explain his expanded role in The X Factor, where he lets the viewers into his home to watch him sigh and throw papers and crush dreams up close. You kind of want to shake him and say, "Can we maybe hear someone sing for two seconds?"

But the image that stands out in my mind is Abby Lee Miller in the opening sequence of Dance Moms. Hers is the last face we see, and she's rolling her neck like Regine in Living Single, like "Oh, HELL no." But what is she Oh HELL no-ing? She is on a soundstage in front of a green screen! It is phony and empty, and the phoniness and emptiness show in her face, and the show has not yet started. I would argue that Abby guides us to a post-post-modern era in reality TV; people have gone into reality TV ready to play a character for fifteen years, now they're showing up for work already tired of it.

Photo: MTV