On last week’s Jersey Shore, Vinny left the house to deal with his anxiety and depression. Turns out he’s also been struggling with both since childhood, and he’d reached a breaking point. On the show, sounding pretty drained overall (“I got nothing left to give”), Vinny said that his meltdown was triggered in part by homesickness; seeing his family for the first time post-Italy sent him into a tailspin. The only allusion Vinny made to his particular reality TV circumstances was a vague one — “I can’t function in this environment”— but even the most guileless viewer knows that Vinny has got a lot more than homesickness on his mind. He’s at the center of the crazy reality TV circus that is Jersey Shore, which would affect anyone’s mental state. And Jersey Shore would be a better show if it would admit that.
Vinny’s revelation made for a more thought-provoking episode than usual, yes. But it was mostly a missed opportunity: Vinny’s problems are much more complex and compelling than his platitudes about sleepless nights suggest. He’s a formerly regular dude who thrust himself into the spotlight and now feels removed from his family (they can’t understand what he’s going through, no matter how hard Uncle Nino tries). He’s surrounded by hangers-on who want to have sex with his mythical penis while rolling around in his money. His every move is followed, his every action derided, and he’s probably well aware the timer on his 15 minutes has been about to go off for months. The poor guy must be freaked out about his circumstances and worried about his future.
Of course, the show never goes near any of this. Vinny can’t talk about the things we as viewers suspect are really bothering him because those things are not guido problems — they’re famous people problems. And the one conversational taboo on Jersey Shore is fame. The cast can talk about poop, masturbation, doing sex while pooping and masturbating, but if they so much as directly hint at their fame, the perks or the pressures of it, wanting to hold onto it or run from it, well, then…it’s edited out.
Reality shows seem to think there’s only two paths for addressing their participants’ fame: Never do it, or do it all the time. Most reality shows in which the subjects start out as un-famous never mention the cast’s new found status. The Hills didn’t, Jersey Shore doesn’t, and Teen Mom doesn’t, even when it borders on the absurd, like when the Teen Moms are getting breast implants, but we’re supposed to believe they’re still struggling with money. In shows where the characters don’t start out as total nobodies (The Newlyweds, The Osbournes, The Kardashians), fame is a part of the show from the beginning. The Kardashians shove their fame in our faces constantly. The girls have a photo shoot! Mom’s on the Today show this morning! There’s paparazzi waiting outside of the Gansevoort!
Certainly, this second path is not what we want for Jersey Shore: but is there not a third way? There has to be some middle ground between following the gang as they monkey around on the red carpet and pretending that — after almost five seasons and two possible spin-offs — when they roll up to Karma, they’re just the average group of oranginas out to flash their crotches. (Britain’s own, extremely sucessful Jersey Shore-esque The Only Way Is Essex, shows the cast watching themselves on TV, and it doesn’t suffer for it.) These are people who on their off time get paid to show up at clubs. Are fans lining up to get into some kind of VIP dance area? Where are the bodyguards? Are they always getting into fights because people are screaming insults at them? And why isn’t J-Woww out tonight? If it’s because she has an early morning meeting about her bathing suit line then, please, for the love of God, just say so. This is a group of people whose success was founded on being honest to the point of embarrassment: why be tight lipped about what we all really know is going on anyway?
Acknowledging the cast’s fame would also open up all sorts of storylines — at a time when the show desperately needs new storylines. When Snooki got into a fight with The Unit during the season premiere, she made fun of his hair. She lives with Pauly D and she’s taking a cheap shot at this vapid opportunist’s hair? Say what you really mean, Snooki, and call him a famewhore! Better yet, tap into what made you guys so charming in the first place and make up a fun new word for famewhore. And how much better would all the fights with Mike be if his roommates could accuse him of what he’s really guilty of — aggressively trying to extend his time in the spotlight by playing the reality TV villain to the hilt. As much fun as it has been to watch the gang GTL and take grenades home for four full seasons, it won’t be fun forever: If Jersey Shore really wants to be interesting again it should let its cast’s new reality be part of their reality show.