We are living through a landmark moment in the history of science. Make sure you bookmark this recap now, so that you can share it with your grandkids when they visit you in your personal retirement capsule orbiting Mars. The most important sociological experiment of our time has resumed, with the two-episode premiere of Jersey Shore Family Vacation.
In the course of our research, we intend to answer several questions of vital importance to the field. What effects do house music and Ron Ron Juice have, long term, on the human psyche? Will a meatball inevitably age out of being a meatball? What if the particular meatball in question is a mommy meatball? Can spray tanner be absorbed into the bloodstream through the epidermis? If so, is that, like, a problem? And most of all, can you ever go home again? We rejoin our test subjects not in Seaside Heights, but in Miami. As professional scientists, I assume you are all wearing lab coats and protective goggles. You’ll find the emergency eye wash station in the corner, should you need it.
First things first, we have some catching up to do. Nicole’s dreams of producing tan babies with a tan guido have come true: She’s now a married, “hot mess mom” of two, as is Jenni. (I know there is something neurologically wrong with me because it makes me teary that tiny humans exist in this world thanks to this dumb idiot TV show that I love.) Deena, too, recently tied the knot. Pauly and his blowout reside in Las Vegas, where — when he isn’t busy DJing — he enjoys his opulent home complete with the requisite tanning bed, an arcade, and motorcycles on display indoors. (Pauly has always been the Jay Leno of Jersey Shore.) Ronnie also lives in Vegas, where he’s expecting a baby with his girlfriend, Jen. (No, not Sammi. Her name is Jen, and she is by all appearances a different, non-Sammi person.) Vinny has a girlfriend, a beard, and a newfound passion for nutrition and exercise, but more importantly, he’s finally moved out of his parents’ house. Around the corner. Vinny’s personal version of Everybody Loves Raymond naturally involves Mama Paola (please feel free to invite me over for dinner any day, any time) coming by to do his laundry.
But no cast member has changed more than Mike. As he now says in the opening credits, “The Situation is under construction.” He’s two years sober (“I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I don’t steal, I don’t drink, I don’t drug”), living with his college sweetheart Lauren, and fighting a federal legal battle over tax evasion. “I’m going through a serious court case,” he explains. “The United States versus — they even have the nickname ‘The Situation’ on the paperwork.” If he loses, he could face five to ten years in prison. (This episode is a friendly reminder from the IRS that they’re expecting your taxes by April 15, thank you in advance.)
Before flying off to Miami, we get an tantalizing taste of the actual Jersey Shore, albeit the off-season winter version, when Jenni, Nicole, and Deena drive down to Seaside to visit Danny at the Shore Store. It’s with their old boss slash landlord that the conspicuous absence of the sweetest bitch we’ll ever meet is addressed for the first time. “She’s, like, settled down now. She found a really good guy,” Nicole says of Sammi. “I don’t think she wants to relive the Ronnie-Sam stuff,” hypothesizes Deena. After fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting some more throughout the entire original run of Jersey Shore, Sam and Ron moved in together, he tells the camera — only to break up when he balked at getting married and also, no biggie, cheated on her. Pauly says Sammi’s new beau looks “exactly like” Ronnie, and I’ll just go ahead and leave this here, whatever. Nicole also finds a minute to sneak into the shore house and abduct the duck phone. “Do you remember me?” she coos, kissing it, before recoiling in disgust at the thought of all the booze-breath mouths its beak has been in germy proximity to all those years ago.
Their Miami digs are a “motherfucking compound,” as Jenni puts it. “Ooh, we’re like rich,” Nicole observes, not incorrectly. They’ve traded in the hostel-like accommodations of their youth for a luxurious, on-the-water mansion — with a backyard and an enormous pool (“I can’t wait to pee in it,” Nicole says) — where they might very well tape a Sunshine State version of The Bachelor. Alas, legal implications means Mike can’t join them in Miami yet, and maybe not ever. The (lowercase) situation is developing.
The collective giddiness that ensues when the gang reunites is both organic and totally intoxicating, but everyone, it should be said, looks different — to be fair, it’s been more than five years — which adds to the overall cognitive dissonance of this operation. For one thing, the cast wardrobes are, mercifully, considerably shorter on leopard print and Ed Hardy than they were in the past. Nicole’s pouf has evolved into an enviable balayage. (Is this what a balayage is? I genuinely have no idea. Don’t tell anyone.) Mike and Pauly share a certain cheeky puffiness; Vinny is low-carb skinny under his I’m-an-adult-now facial hair. Ronnie has highlights. Nicole in particular looks like she’s wearing a real-life Snapchat filter. Or, as Vinny describes it with his characteristic mix of brotherly derision and affection, “Nicole’s face has the price tag hanging off of it.” The various plastic-surgery procedures undergone by the group are discussed without embarrassment, as when Nicole, earthbound orange angel that she is, explains that she opted for a post-kids boob job because her “tits looked like ballsacks.” I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as Snooki.
Eager for a break from “Gym, Tan, Baby,” Ronnie seems to be struggling a bit to wrap his brain around the prospect of impending fatherhood. “This is my dadchelor party,” he says of Miami. “Once you have that baby, bitch, it’s done,” Nicole warns him. When Deena mentions that she and her husband have been using condoms, Ron advises that he just “pull out” instead. Clearly, he has learned an important lesson about unplanned pregnancies and birth control. (This seems like as good an excuse to any to donate to Planned Parenthood.) Nicole and Jenni are excited to take a break from their parental responsibilities and be drunk dummies for a minute, but also intermittently racked with mom guilt. Possibly the only cast member not currently struggling with an existential crisis is Pauly, the only single in their midst, who seems perfectly content to be trapped in amber — or maybe it’s just Spiker hair gel.
Cue Pauly dragging an enormous, alarmingly corpse-sized bag into the living room. “Is that Angelina?” Snooki cries. Not quite. Inside is a life-size sex doll (I hoped it might actually be some kind of instructional CPR dummy, but no, it’s a confirmed sex doll) made, sort of, in Sammi’s image. I’m not impressed by this craftsmanship. Press a button and the Sammequin will cycle through her catchphrases, like “If you’re not a guido, you can get the fuck out of my face” and my personal favorite, “Ron, stop.” Vinny holds hands with the doll, then tweaks her nipple. “If you choose not to come on vacation with us, we’re going to roast you, hard,” explains Jenni, but if I may offer a counterpoint: Ew. No one has ever accused the roomies of being too delicate with one another, with their past expressions of familial love taking the form of punches to the face, stinky cheese hidden under Mike’s mattress, or that time Ron broke all of Sam’s belongings, including her glasses, in a rage. (And yet they wonder why she didn’t want to come back.) But okay, in the interest of fairness, where’s the humiliating Mike doll? Who’s rubbing his nipple? All that said, the fact that the Sammequin is wearing a tank that reads “I’m in a really good place” is legitimately hilarious.
Of course, by this point, everyone is drinking heavily. (You know what, why don’t you just go ahead and assume this is always the case, unless I specifically tell you otherwise.) Nicole, still the never-not-screaming spark plug we fell in love with nearly a decade ago, delivers some stellar physical comedy. First, while loading the luggage into the house, she tumbles into the bushes in the grand tradition of the Countess in Mexico. Then, the Sammi doll proves too heavy for Nicole to lift off the couch. In the course of wrestling with the Sammequin, she (1) accidentally tears off its wig and (2) pops one of its eyeballs halfway out of the socket. “I just fought with Sam downstairs for like an hour,” she says to Ron. “Welcome to my world,” he responds.
Pauly lets loose the first “cabs are heeeere” of Family Vacation like a starter pistol, and the gang is off to the club. These literal moms and dads are aware how out of place they look beating up the beat among the younger, more disaffected crowd, but their blast-from-the-past-in-a-glass enthusiasm is infectious. “I will always fist pump to the day I die,” Nicole says. Between tequila shots, Pauly meets his ideal woman: dark hair, light eyes, good dancer. “And she smells like a stripper!” he adds, besotted. In the meantime, Nicole has ascended to a fugue-state level of drunk, fondling Pauly’s dream girl’s boob (does this qualify as a “robbery,” in the traditional Jersey Shore sense, or just some light assault?) and falling, repeatedly, until she’s carried out of the club.
“I’m looking around and I’m realizing that we’re not these, like, wiser mature people. We’re still the same shitshow that was around five years ago,” says Vinnie. I mean, who among us? On the cab ride home, Pauly laments the loss of his would-be wife, to the point that I’m half-convinced we’ll soon see him trawling through Miami with a stiletto-heeled glass slipper. By the way, if Nicole is our Harpo, Pauly remains our Groucho, turning out chef-kissing-fingers one-liners even when wasted, as when he explains his chosen career path: “It was the easiest one to spell: D. J.”
When the roomies return to the house, the power is out for reasons that go unexplained. (The following night, equally mysteriously, the power will have been turned back on.) They nevertheless manage to order pizza. Vinny picks off and eats only the cheese, a sight that is both heartbreaking and adorable. The self-proclaimed Keto Guido is loyal to his diet, no matter how high his blood-alcohol level. As prophesied, Nicole pees in the pool, still wearing her expensive-looking pants (Are they leather? Can pee travel through leather?) and with an exposed nipple (again, who among us?) tastefully blurred in post-production. Meanwhile, Ronnie and Deena have a fight that, on her end, stems from her feeling hurt that Ron never reached out when her father passed away, and on his end, from desperately needing to discharge his frustration with Sam’s absence like emotional static electricity. Ronnie, it’s safe to say, has some stuff he needs to work through.
The next morning, a disoriented Nicole discovers that ants have swarmed their abandoned pizza remnants. She throws the trash food out, and then finds another pie — which, although I will grant her that it doesn’t have any visible insects crawling on it, was also left outside all night, and therefore also qualifies strongly as trash food — which she eats, and cuddles with, in bed.
Mike, in the process of negotiating a plea deal, has secured the judge’s permission to travel to Miami. The roommates are thrilled, and not just because this means they’ll have a 24/7 designated driver by default. V and P pick up their missing M at the airport and deliver him to the Clevelander, where the rest of the cast is day-drinking. This fitter, happier, more productive Mike — a much cuddlier figure than the troubled man who slammed his head into a concrete wall in Florence — is greeted with cheers and big hugs. Immediately, Mike feels a “sensory overload.” After all, refraining from booze on Jersey Shore is basically the Olympics of sobriety. But I believe in Mike. So do his friends. Deena calls him both “born again” and “Jesus.” I am more than willing to accept a reading of Jersey Shore as the tale of a very unlikely second coming. Happy belated Easter!
The roommates head out to a fancy dinner in celebration of Mike’s arrival. They toast him with sparkling water, each taking a turn to say how proud they are of him — if they didn’t seem so genuine, I’d be convinced his attorney had concocted a brilliant scheme to turn Family Vacation into television as character witness. Then Ronnie, having perhaps been in the bathroom and missed the tone we all were going for here, delivers an extended monologue complaining about Mike: “Since day one, we’ve gone at it, we’ve had issues with each other. Fighting, yelling screaming. I didn’t like you. You know, you were not a good person.” Finally, he veers left to end on a positive note. “I respect where you’ve gotten to and the strength that you have. Very inspirational, bro,” he says. We’ve come so far, from “Come at me, bro” to “Very inspirational, bro.” Good on you, Ronnie.
After dinner, Nicole and Deena symbolically drown the Sammi doll in the pool, fatally baptizing her in chlorine (and however many milliliters of Nicole’s pee managed to defy the filtration system). And yet the Sammequin stubbornly floats. Her built-in voice box sputters, both incoherent and noble in its resistance of death. “Yo, she is never going to talk to any of us ever again,” Mike says. “Maybe we should write her a note,” Pauly suggests. (Speaking of: Here is a gift idea appropriate for every single person in your life, and also for strangers.) Suddenly, Nicole realizes her rings are missing — including her wedding ring, so make what you will of that ominous metaphor. Equipped with flashlights, the cast scours the grass by hand. She sobs on the phone to her father, threatening to leave Miami.
Maybe, just maybe, the Sammequin’s ghost is seeking revenge from her watery grave. “Karma is not just a club,” according to the Gospel of Mike.