“Jersey Shore" ended in December, retiring after six seasons as one of television’s signature reality shows. And while it was a demolition derby of inebriation, spray-tanning and hard house music, it was also, at least in part, ethnography. Never before had the rituals, quirks and peccadilloes of young Italians, or Italianates, been given such a bullhorn.
“Jersey Shore" was doing what reality TV had previously done only sporadically: shining a light on a genuine, region-specific American subculture. What years of strong ratings revealed, however, was that subculture was exportable. What might have started out as idle curiosity or even schadenfreude turned into affection and fandom.
It was a new phenomenon. Cable channels have been looking for ways to replicate it and turn it into a reliable formula. They’ve done that by a scavenger hunt, of sorts, for young people from groups rarely seen on TV, hoping one of them will squeeze out something universal from the specific.
Last week, MTV unveiled “Buckwild," about a group of rowdy but relatable young people in rural West Virginia, and on Wednesday it will introduce “Washington Heights," a docu-novella set among Dominican-Americans in the titular Manhattan neighborhood. Tonight, VH1 welcomes “Black Ink Crew," which is set in a Harlem tattoo parlor.
Of the three, the carefree “Buckwild" has the most “Jersey Shore" in its bones. Like that show’s first season, this one places a group of young people with ample free time in a house and gives them a long leash to misbehave. That means drinking, parties that enrage the neighbors, and romance, most of which revolves around Cara, who has been imported from the city (Morgantown, that is) to titillate the boys and incense the other girls.
This all takes place in Sissonville, W.Va., which has one stoplight and a lot of homespun ingenuity. By the measuring stick of most TV programming, it qualifies as foreign; the cast member with the thickest accent, Shain, is frequently subtitled. And the behavior is novel too. “Buckwild" is a bumpkin “Jackass," right down to the don’t-try-this-at-home disclaimer at the top of the show.
In the premiere, the cast members turn a dump truck into a swimming pool, go mudding in a pickup truck and get stuck, and set a car on fire near a clutch of trees but avoid a forest fire.
The show has arrived with the usual fuss, denounced by government officials and neighbors. Everyone wants his or her community portrayed as spotless, which means difficult portrayals should be applauded, even as they’re criticized. That’s what happens when uncomfortable schisms are revealed, when family business becomes public.
All of the glamour that’s missing from “Buckwild" shows up in “Washington Heights," which plays out like a Dominican-American “Laguna Beach" or “The Hills," though at least some of the cast members of this show have evident career aspirations.
It’s shot with the same cool reverence as those earlier shows — unlike “Buckwild," which has some of the skittish camerawork of “Jersey Shore," the scenes here are slick. Everyone looks beautiful and is framed elegantly.
And almost everyone has a goal — JP wants to rap, Jimmy dreams of playing professional baseball, Frankie does spoken poetry, and Ludwin wants to be an artist. The affection within the group is genuine and affecting.
But like “Jersey Shore," this show has brawling. At the end of the first episode, the tensions between Jimmy’s friend Reyna and his girlfriend, Eliza, come to a head outside JP’s concert, leading to an intervention by, of all people, JP’s mother, who had been enjoying herself inside the club. As on “Jersey Shore," it’s family first.
On the surface, “Black Ink Crew" merely relocates familiar tattooing shows like “LA Ink" and “Miami Ink" to Harlem. But there’s a rhythm and comfort to this show that those lack. This crew has its own slang and back stories that are dark in ways that serve to bring its members together and also to tear them apart.
Black reality shows are often saddled with the burden of representation; see the backlash against “Love & Hip Hop" and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta." But judging by the coming-attractions clips at the end of the premiere, the critique of this show will be internal, when one cast member, Dutchess, complains that her colleagues aren’t representing the business — and by extension, the race — well.
Even if these new shows end up being remakes of familiar paradigms, more is at stake here. English-language TV has never featured Dominican culture as intensely as “Washington Heights" does, and the hollers of West Virginia were a mystery until “Buckwild." The portrayals on these shows might be messy, but they’re also helpful to understanding the country as less monolithic.