Halfway through the first episode of Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, Pauly D., the adobe-colored, spiky-haired DJ from Rhode Island, drags a body bag into the living room of their vacation house in Miami. Inside the body bag is a sex doll dressed like Sammi Giancola, the only member of the original cast who opted out of this enterprise, kitted out with a voice box that squawks “STAHP, RAHHN” when you press its stomach or its flaccid hand. It spends one night supine and covered by a beach towel on the couch; later in the episode, someone places it atop the kitchen counter, only for it to fall down.
Ronnie asks if he can have sex with it as a joke, and thankfully, no one follows up. Eventually Dena and Snooki tire of its presence; they throw it into the swimming pool, where it floats, face-up, gurgling one last “STAHHP” before falling mercifully silent. “Is this for real,” I wrote in my notes, followed by more exclamation points than the moment truly warranted. In my heart, I knew I should be offended, but all I could do was laugh. My favorite guidos are back and I couldn’t be happier.
Jersey Shore: Family Vacation is happening in part because of the outcry the original cast heard after MTV premiered Floribama Shore, a spin-off in concept only produced and created by SallyAnn Salsano, the architect of the most high-quality slice of life reality television. Shortly after Floribama Shore was announced, the cast of Jersey Shore mobilized via social media, led by Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, via a tweet poetic in its plaintive simplicity.
Past attempts at revitalizing the careers of the Jersey Shore family fell short; out of the cast, Snooki and J-Woww enjoyed moderate success on a spin-off, Snooki & J-Woww, but everyone else’s television careers faltered.
Getting the gang back together again—five years older and ideally, wiser—seemed to be what they clamored for. “We basically were begging MTV to bring us back,” Polizzi told The New York Times. “We were begging everyone to bring us back.” Eventually, someone listened—but it wasn’t MTV at first. In August 2017, E! aired Reunion Road Trip: Return to the Jersey Shore, a sad hour-long special that featured some, but not all, of the cast, absent J-Woww, Vinny, and most important to who was there, Ronnie. The cast went through the motions, but any dedicated Shorehead could tell that it really wasn’t the same. Salsano’s touch is what made Jersey Shore the phenomenal success it was. As the E! one-off had nothing to do with her, and was by all accounts, miserable, she was ready to make magic once more. Of the off-brand reunion special, she told NYT, “To say I had a mini-meltdown would be the understatement of the century... Even before it aired, I was so invigorated and I was like, there is an appetite for this.” What’s still to be determined is if the formula still works.
For summary, gleaned in the first 10 minutes of the first episode: In the five years that the show has been off the air, most of the cast settled down. Snooki—Nicole, now—has two children, as does J-Woww. She also runs MissDomesticated, an alt mommy blog that, according to its “About Us” page, “is a destination for ALL women with the goal of empowering them to proudly be their beautiful selves!” The sober Situation, who says when driving his wasted roommates home, “The Situation is the designation,” pled guilty for tax evasion in January. Ronnie, a man who I do not think should be a father, is now just that—to a baby girl born April 3, two days before the show’s premiere. Pauly D. is a Vegas DJ. Sweet Vinny lives in his own house on Staten Island and his mother still offers to cut his meat at the dinner table. Dena is married. Angelina “Trash Bags” Pivarnick is never mentioned. Aside from her inanimate stand-in, Sammi Giancola’s absence is discussed but not dwelled upon.
The show is framed as a “family vacation”—the implication, of course, being that these lovable dorks were made family via the magic of television—and it has moments of tenderness. During the second episode, Nicole starts to cry at brunch, overwhelmed by how much she misses her son Lorenzo when she hears his favorite song, “Thunder,” by Imagine Dragons. Jenni comforts her in the bathroom, commiserating, and later, they end up greeting Mike—absent from the first episode because of the whole court thing—with drinks in hand. Ronnie, who left the mother of his child at home, enjoys an acrobatic yet tame lap dance from three dancers at the bar. In short, nothing really has changed, but the stakes for having the best time ever are slightly higher. Once each season ends, everyone goes back to their real lives, settling back into their routines. The hands of the producers are, as always, largely absent. Jersey Shore is its best when the stars are left to just be themselves.
Watching the show now feels like visiting with old friends for a long weekend and acting up in the way that only old friends do. Everyone drinks more water, but is generally the same. Old fights and new are dredged up from the depths and litigated in public after one too many wines. The cast members scream at each other with the same vein-pulsing anger reserved for immediate members of the family: a lot of bark, some bite, and all love. Later, I’m sure, there will be chicken parmigiana and a nice salad. Everyone’s grown up a little bit, but at the core, thank goodness, no one has really changed.