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Jersey Explosion

Maija Gustin | Wednesday, September 1, 2010

If you’ve been living with no electricity, in the Antarctic or with your eyes shut this past year, you may not have noticed New Jersey’s fast and steady takeover of television. From those crazy fist-pumpers on “Jersey Shore” to the crazy fist-punchers on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” loud-mouthed east-coasters are all the rage right now, with shows about GLT-ing, selling prom dresses and making cakes, to name a few.

So what’s with this current fascination? Is it the toned and tanned bodies of many of these shows’ stars? Is it their no-holds-barred attitudes? Is it their love of all things glittery, gold and “Guido?” And, most important of all, do the larger-than-life inhabitants of the silver screen’s New Jersey look anything like the real people who call Jersey home?

To answer that last question, find someone from New Jersey and ask him or her yourself.

But as for the rest, I don’t know that these questions can be answered. What I can say, though, is that every Jersey-centric show on television is very distinctly New Jersey — meaning that, with few exceptions, the shows are very much about being from New Jersey and the way that people use that to identify themselves.

Case in point: Oxygen’s “Jersey Couture,” about a family-owned dress business, catering mostly to the homecoming/prom dance and beauty pageant crowd. It’s actually a good show, and not because the people who come into the store are amusing to watch (though they are). Rather, the family, in particular the two daughters that the show centers around, are hilarious to watch as they try to exemplify the very stereotypically New Jersey Italian family. Whether the stereotype is real or not, this family is proud of where they come from and proud of their home. In some ways, New Jersey and the New Jersey culture are main characters themselves.

Compare “Jersey Couture” to something like “Jersey Shore,” where the majority of the reality show’s stars aren’t even from New Jersey. They have, though, come to be associated with the state and the stereotypical party atmosphere of a summer at the Jersey Shore. Even moving the cast to Miami couldn’t change that. But while Jersey is still totally central to the show (except when they’re in Miami, maybe), the MTV show seems to use it more as a romanticized ideal of what a high-flying, partying life can be like in New Jersey. Maybe it’s not celebrated, but it’s not attacked either.

“Cake Boss,” TLC’s show about a New Jersey-based cake baker and his shop, is very much centered on Buddy Valastro’s Italian upbringing in New Jersey. But the show could really be set anywhere. The distinct New Jersey flavor comes more from the cake shop’s clients than it does from the bakery itself. But there it is, trumpeting New Jersey’s unique culture nonetheless.

And “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” has increasingly become about defending a very “New Jersey” idea of protecting one’s name and one’s family. That’s not a distinctly New Jersey thing, but the characters on “Real Housewives” tend to blend their Italian close-knit family pride with their New Jersey upbringings.

So where is the appeal? We can find loud-mouthed twenty-somethings in plenty of other states. And shows about cake shops have already infiltrated places like Baltimore. And “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” is just one of a growing number of “Housewives” shows that span the country. Maybe we see an ideal in the seemingly carefree lives of many of the “characters” (because that’s what they often are) on these shows – don’t we all just want to go to the gym, get tan and do laundry all day? Or live in luxury thanks to our husbands’ big salaries? Or make really awesome cakes?

Maybe we see an “otherness” in the New Jersey lifestyle.

Or maybe there is absolutely no explanation for why shows about New Jersey are popping up everywhere

It doesn’t really matter. But you can definitely believe that these New Jersey-ites are taking our fascination with them to the bank – the kids of “Jersey Shore” reportedly make $10,000 an episode and may be looking at $30,000 an episode for Season 3.

Here’s hoping the next big thing is about kids from South Bend, Ind.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Maija Gustin at mgustin@nd.edu