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reality rumble

What’s the Best Reality Show Ever? Round 1: American Idol vs. Jersey Shore

Talk about Sophie’s choice (but, like, a made-for-Lifetime Sophie’s Choice, starring Ali Larter)! American Idol’s Ruben-and-Clay-studded second season versus Jersey Shore’s breakthrough debut: two unscripted supershows of the '00s, at their very best and most promising. A family friendly variety show versus a show that kept a variety of family-planning devices close at hand! Young dreamers leaving it all on the stage versus young drinkers ejaculating in the hot tub! All eyes were on surprise smash American Idol as it began its sophomore year, and the evolution of its top two kept us riveted throughout. Meanwhile, awareness of Jersey Shore spread like a tawdry rumor, and the flavored-vodka-fueled antics of its cast made us shame-watch. But one of these seasons contained the elements that kept its show alive, and one just illustrated why the show withered. Let’s discuss.

Season two of American Idol hit the ground running a scant four months after Kelly Clarkson’s victory; season one had premiered in the summer of 2002 and hadn't even started winning its time slot until around the top seven. So the tropes that are synonymous with Idol — the early season singer-shaming shenanigans, being “in it to win it,” the strange mixture of pity and delight at original co-host Brian Dunkleman’s misfortune that I have come to refer to as Dunkenfreude — weren’t seared into our collective consciousness until season two. At the same time, the raised profile of the show brought out a higher caliber of singer; tens of thousands of young dreamers saw what happened to Kelly and went to get themselves a piece of that. (The potential dark side of Idol fame — by which I mean From Justin to Kelly — wouldn’t be revealed for a few more months.) Season two’s top ten was stronger than what had come before: consider tone-deaf, Celebrity Rehab–bound season-one third-placer Nikki McKibbin to season two’s flawless, spunky bronze medalist Kimberley Locke — no contest, right? 

And at the top, the cuddliest rivalry in reality history: Clay vs. Ruben. They were genuine nice guys, real life strivers, true mensches with stunning voices. It was hard to root against either of them, but boy did people root for them; the Velvet Teddy Bear had rabid supporters, but season two saw the arrival of the hopelessly devoted Claymate, a species that roams the earth to this day. Clay and Ruben were neck and neck through all of season two, and even though Ruben eked out a victory, America rejoiced in watching Clay go the whole ten rounds.

Jersey Shore came right out of the gate like an angry gorilla juicehead. We were quoting it, discussing it, parodying it on Saturday Night Live within days. The cast members were immediately identifiable (except to each other; one of my favorite things about season one is that nobody ever seemed quite sure of Sneaker Snockie Shnicker Snooki’s name). I remember thinking the only misstep in the launch of this show was that it happened in early December rather than October, which would have made Halloween 2009 a marketing-department-affirming sea of Snookis and Situations. Like Idol, its ratings continued to grow through its first handful of seasons, even as its relevance waned. 

But oh, those first few weeks and the immediate effect they had on our vernacular! The cast of Jersey Shore managed, in just a few short weeks, to mangle the entire English language. They changed “smoosh” from an onomatopoeia into a word you couldn’t say in polite company. They took 80 percent of the idioms in the English language — “blowing it out of the water,” “coming out of the woodwork,” etc. — and made them mean “partying.” But their accidental linguistic innovations were even more impressive: The morning after a drunken first night on the boardwalk, Snooki complained that she was “on the outcast.” Later, she drew up the crucial elements of her “idea boyfriend.” They were out-of-control malapropism machines, our housemates. Seven drunk, orange, sexually compulsive Amelia Bedelias.

But a good story needs a villain, and Idol gave us a breakout star in nasty old Simon Cowell. We’d had tantalizing glimpses at his dark side in season one, but in sophomore year, he really settled into his role as the world’s first reality show Mean Judge. As I recall, the teaser billboards for season two were just a single image of Mr. Cowell, grimacing, with his fingers in his ears. “Absolyootly dreadful,” he’d sigh at a hopeless young belter. “Hideous. Out you go.” He was the JR Ewing of the new television landscape, the man we hated to love, the guy we lustily booed even when we agreed with him. In the current 13th season, Harry Connick Jr. sits in Simon’s seat, and when he politely critiques a singer — even when Keith and J.Lo have said the exact same thing — the audience drowns him out with jeers. That’s how potent Simon’s viciousness was: His chair still emits a boo-inducing pheromone. Nowadays, every competition show has the judge who tells it like it is, but nobody told it with more relish than newly minted superstar Simon Cowell. 

And right there beside him was Paula Abdul, who really started slurring her way into America’s heart in season two. She had it more or less together in season one, even employing a staff of writers to craft her post-performance critiques. The next year, she was on her own, but if she was nervous, it didn’t show (because she seemed to be in the grip of powerful anti-anxiety medications). She never said a bad thing to anyone, largely because she never said anything to anyone; I remember her harshest criticism being along the lines of “that was maybe a little bit not the best thing you’ve ever done.” In season two, Paula Abdul became America’s Sleepheart (and it was her performance that led to the late, lamented Bravo reality horror show Hey Paula).

At its best, Idol is an underdog story, a story of transformation. We watch a bunch of dreamers get dumped off the turnip truck right onto a shiny-floored stage, and they evolve before our eyes. And who evolved more than the man whose journey is synonymous with Idol’s second season: Clay Aiken. Behold how he changed from this ... to this. (And then later this. And eventually this.) And whatever may become of his run for Congress, his life is fundamentally different than it was the morning he decided to audition. Even if we don’t love Clay Aiken, I would argue that he is everything we love about American Idol: a gawky kid with a gift, seizing his only chance at the big time. We’re not talking much about Ruben Studdard anymore, but it doesn’t matter; Clay fulfills the promise of the show, which renews itself each year: Even the losers can become champions.

In Seaside Heights, meatballs stay meatballs; the whole point of Jersey Shore is that nobody evolves. The Situation creeps. Snooki falls down. Cabs are here. It’s basically “Waiting for Guidot.” Neither jobs nor the intervention of New Jersey’s Finest (nor indeed the eventual appearances of sobriety and parenthood) made much of a dent in their routine. They didn’t change because they didn’t want to, hence Ronnie’s solemn vow never to fall in love on the Jersey Shore. Except eventually, of course, old Ron-Ron did fall in love with sweetheart Sammi, and then broke up and came back together in what would become yet another of the show’s feedback loops. In season one, the housemates presented themselves as they were: proud, loud, resistant to change.

But their lives did change. They became very, very famous between seasons one and two, and to omit that part of the narrative is to withhold a huge part of the story. Even in season one, when their names and faces weren’t ubiquitous, they were still followed around by cameras, lights, and a scrum of production assistants with release forms, and there’s no way that didn’t affect their experiences. Here, try this: Go into a boardwalk daiquiri-and-techno club on your own for an hour. Now go back in with an MTV documentary film crew. Your experiences were totally different, right? (Also, are you okay?) How could we believe that anyone would meet these people in a bar, even before knowing who they were, and not wonder what degree of fame they could get by going home with them? By season two, I would have smooshed with Snooki, just for the story.

The inverse is true for American Idol: Its hopefuls want to be stars, and the tools they use to achieve their goals are on full display: the band, the mentors, the stylists, the cameras, and the audience. Whatever drama may unfold among the cast or judges happens off-camera and is never brought to light. Well, almost: American Idol season two brought us a bit of controversy in the form of Corey Clark, the first finalist to be eliminated from the show by the producers rather than the viewers. After his domestic-violence rap sheet was revealed, a small, ugly piece of the real world broke through Idol’s carefully crafted artifice, and to their credit, they dealt with it swiftly and honestly. (Later, Corey Clark alleged a sexual relationship between himself and Paula Abdul, adding that she gave him tips on how to win the competition. She denied the allegations, and then Corey recorded a song called “Paulatics.” The whole thing was pretty gross, if you want to know the truth.)

Jersey Shore’s controversial moment came and went in the time it took to land one left hook. Snooki got herself involved in a little war of words with an enormous bar patron and felt the dark side of her beloved juicehead species when he straight-up punched her in the face. It was a shocking tonal shift for the show; you simply couldn’t watch it and be anything but horrified. (And after its single initial airing, you couldn’t watch it at all. It was deleted from future broadcasts, in a move that simultaneously covered MTV’s ass and assured that the moment would live forever as a GIF.) Yet ten minutes into the next episode, it was simply forgotten: Snooki was back to knocking back kamikazes and the big drama revolved around Sammi failing to load the dishwasher and her subsequent banishment from ravioli night.

Oh, I love them both. But what American Idol gave us in season two — its ability to adapt, to change lives, to make us rewind and attempt to learn Abdulese — is what allowed it to flourish. What Jersey Shore gave us in season one — its resistance to change, its selective storytelling, its recurring themes that failed to evolve — is what choked it off. Though much consideration and late-night deli ham went into this decision, ultimately I must redefine GTL as Good-bye Toodles Later.

Winner: American Idol, season two.

Dave Holmes is a frequent contributor to Vulture, with his Somewhere in Time column running here weekly. He also hosts the live game show the Friday Forty monthly at Los Angeles’ NerdMelt Theater.

Photo-Illustration: FOX and MTV