I hated every minute I lived in New Jersey ...
Reality TV has fixed its gaze on the Garden State. A place that was once mocked as the home of little more than a turnpike is now a hot spot for unscripted entertainment.
Jersey moxie has evolved into a brand, an attitude that’s celebrated in shows centered on average Joes and Janes with larger-than-life personas.
"The people in New Jersey have so much self-confidence and are completely secure in who they are," says SallyAnn Salsano, creator of "Jersey Shore," which features three year-round residents. Production just wrapped on season five in Seaside.
Salsano continues, "They’re not doing anything more than being themselves and that’s what makes a great reality TV character."
After decades of being defined as a mere suburb of New York, Jersey has developed its own identity via unscripted TV. Unfortunately, that identity is built around folks who embody stereotypes.
Yet Jerseyans still watch, perhaps out of morbid curiosity. The most fervent "haters" can often tell you all about the latest episode.
Here's what they're watching:
• "Bear Swamp Recovery" (truTV): The life of a repo man is always intense and this new series focuses on Trenton specialists who take back odd items like Zambonis and garbage trucks from hostile debtors. (Mondays at 10 p.m.).
• "Brothers on Call" (DIY Network): The cameras trail humorous Ridgewood handymen, Terry and Jon Wittmaack who run a family business, Men Around the House. Their projects can be as grandiose as a kitchen renovation and as minimalist as changing lights bulbs. (Debuts in October)
• "Cake Boss" (TLC ): Buddy Valastro of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken is an artiste who works in the medium of cake, designing phantasmagoric desserts for fussy customers.
• "Jersey Couture" (Oxygen): High fashion and huge egos are on display in this portrait of a Freehold dress shop, Diane & Co. with a notoriously rigid return policy.
• "Jerseylicious" (The Style Network): At the Gatsby Salon in Green Brook, staffers spar over creative differences and hair gets teased like a grade school nebbish.
• "Jersey Shore" (MTV): Lonely souls navigate a morally casual universe, aka Seaside Heights.
•"Man Caves" (DIY Network): Roving contractor, Jason Cameron and former football player, Tony "The Goose" Siragusa create dream rooms for dudes around the Garden State.
• "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" (Bravo): A character study centered on five empowered women with a predilection for loud clothes and louder arguments that occasional devolve into cat fights. Gloria Steinem must be proud of this new incarnation of feminism.
Although Jerseyans, including Gov. Chris Christie, vocally object to the way the state is depicted on TV, the trend remains vibrant, sustained by Snooki’s big ratings.
"New Jersey has become like an industrial ingredient for reality TV," says Hugh Curnutt, media history professor at Montclair State University. "If you’re in California and you hear about a new reality TV show about New Jersey, you already know that it’s probably about Italian-Americans, family, culture and it will tend to follow the caricatures that are on other shows. That may not be what people want to see but that’s what they’re given to see."
And like it or not, the camera crews aren’t leaving any time soon.
Two new series set in New Jersey are joining the reality ranks. "Bear Swamp Recovery," on Monday’s on truTV, is about Trenton repo men. The DIY network’s "Brothers on Call" puts the spotlight on bickering Ridgewood contractors. It premieres in October.
"New Jersey has interesting opportunities for the foreseeable future," says Jason Hervey, "Bear Swamp" producer. "Interest isn’t waning."
Cable television’s Jersey fetish is rooted in "The Sopranos," says Bruce Fretts, editor of TV Guide.
"‘The Sopranos’ gave New Jersey this kitschy cool image that these reality shows have run with," says Fretts. "I just hope that people don’t think that’s really what people from New Jersey are like. ‘Jersey Shore’ is doing a lot of damage to all that’s been done to try to rehabilitate the state’s image. It’ll turn around and we’ll have better reflections of New Jersey in pop culture at some point but I don’t expect it any time soon."
The Garden State has endured what seems like centuries of ridicule, mocked as a land of Italian alpha males and goddesses in spandex long before the dawn of "The Sopranos."
"The state has an ongoing identity crisis," says Claude Taylor, a communications professor at Monmouth University. "We have Latino culture, Asian culture but if you travel somewhere else in the country, people go, ‘New Jersey, fuggedaboutit.’ We’ve seen other regional stereotypes. We’ve seen the Gomer Pyle southern hick stereotype, the West Coast surfer dude. Even though Italian-Americans have mounted a pretty significant level of objection to the stereotype, people still reference it as an identity marker."
Taylor says there’s more to "Jersey Shore" than spray tan and Ron Ron Juice. He sees significance in its depiction of working class people who have attained wealth in the midst of economic decline. The appeal lies in the promise of upward mobility.
"Snooki comes from a broken home and challenging economic conditions but look at her now," says Taylor. "She’s on runways and red carpets. A lot of people want to dismiss her as an airhead but she’s doing what so many of us are trying to do: ascend from one place to another and better ourselves."
"Bear Swamp" takes working class wish fulfillment a step further, following blue collar guys who venture into affluent areas to repossess luxury cars and other expensive items.
"If you don’t pay your bills, the bank has the right to repossess the collateral, sell it and minimize their loss," says repo man, PJ Vinch, 47, of "Bear Swamp Recovery." "For John Q. Public that’s watching, some of them are going to dislike me. Some of them are going to think I’m crazy. Some people are going to love me because I’m a good father to my son."
Vinch is half Italian and all carnivore, indulging in big, messy meals between repos with his son, Joseph, aka "Tiny," 17, and his father, Philip, aka "Pops," 67.
"Food has always been a social medium for my family," says Vinch. "At 2 p.m., we may be screaming at each other but at 6 p.m., we have dinner together."
"Brothers on Call" showcases a different side of Jerseyana, capturing the quirks of home improvement in Bergen County.
"The brothers are characters but they’re not characters in the way you might think of ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘Jerseylicious,’" says Ross Babbit, DIY senior vice president of programming. "They’re characters because they are brothers and they have a natural sibling rivalry and a cutting wit. All the soccer moms in Ridgewood know them. They’ll do everything from a full blown kitchen renovation to getting a call from someone saying, ‘I just bought a container of Tide detergent and I can’t get the top off.’"
For all the verbal grenades tossed at "Jersey Shore," the show has benefited the Garden State from a purely fiscal standpoint. Lovers and haters alike flocked to Seaside this summer, hoping to catch a glimpse of Snooki behaving badly or at least snap a picture of the infamous Italian flag garage door. The town is now an international landmark.
Still, Governor Christie has taken an anti-Guido stance. Earlier this year, he jokingly asked New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to take back Snooki and the Situation, both born in the Empire State.
"It makes me sad that the governor would say he wishes we weren’t here," says Salsano. "I feel like I’m highlighting Seaside and showing how great it is. Tourism is up, so I think that means that I’m showing it in a good way. Tourism would be down otherwise."