Last Night's TV – crazed thrift and Jersey Shore

Posted on: 31 March 2011 by Alexander Hay

One show fails by preaching, another triumphs by being lurid

Men with tattoos and women with tight budgetsIf there is one concurrent theme in this life, it's that thin lines are the rule. There is a thin line between brave and stupid, after all. Or artistic and pretentious. Determined and pig-headed. Mild-mannered and a doormat. And so on.

But one of the places where this doesn't count is TV, where extremes are the rule instead. One of the worst offenders in this regard is the makeover genre of programs - pioneered and mastered, of course, at Channel 4.

This genre is about finding one extreme (like wan, pasty kids who only eat McDonald's) and countering it with another (Jamie Oliver demanding all schools only ever serve vegetables). It's freak show TV, but that doesn't stop the 'solution' being hurled at the viewers with stark sincerity.

The latest example of this is Channel 4's SuperScrimpers which claims to be on a mission to get us off our spending addiction. A laudable goal, you may think, especially if you consider our landfill output or the £1.46 trillion personal debt we've accrued.

However, rather than being proportionate to the problem, we get PR stunts (handing out free piggy banks) and a family that earns over £100k but still manages to overspend in a fashion that would make Sarah Ferguson proud.

But if that family represented the show's first extreme, the 'solution' comes from another. One of the show's lifestyle gurus, a self-made businesswoman of the kind that likes telling people off, runs her house like a business. ('I've checked our accounts and frankly, Mr. Sparkles The Hamster is simply no longer cost effective in this climate!')

Another exemplar is an aristocratic woman who prides herself on spending £10 or less on shopping, (but who can coincidentally afford the 30 acres she needs to feed herself and her many chickens).

The rest of the 'scrimping gurus' are a plethora of oddballs whose cash-saving tips are, well odd, from dyeing underwear so it looks new to making your own bath oil to making your own birthday cards from junk bought in charity shops. Far from being an inspiration, one is reminded of people who end up with houses full of cats or who collect their urine in bottles.

Naturally, the show harks back to WW2 where everyone lived off scraps and made their swimming costumes out of dish-towels. (Seriously.) What such nostalgia overlooks is that everyone was whooping for joy when rationing was finally abolished. But that doesn't make good television.

Another extreme that television likes is people who are more absurd and stupid than most of their audience. Such alchemy is quite a challenge, but MTV's Jersey Shore (now showing on the Viva digital channel) is that Holy Grail. While Big Brother and most reality TV shows had to cajole their exhibits to do things, the Jersey Shore mob - a bunch of overly madeup, vapid Italian American girls and their steroid-infused metrosexual male-oaf equivalents - pretty much deliver the dramatically stupid on autopilot.

Last night's episode was typical. When they're not getting drunk, seducing girls or just slapping each other, the cast (including one total plonker who calls himself 'The Situation') can be depended on to pass out in bed with each other, strike theatrical poses (more the boys than the girls, it has to be said), speak some sort of gibberish that's plainly made up on the spot, and plumb the depths of absurdity, like one lunk trying to lure trade into the ice cream shop they're all working at by stripping to the waist and gesticulating with his abdominals.

Some of the cast are sort of likeable. Aspirant DJ Pauly has a sort of rabbit-in-the-headlights earnestness about him. Pint-sized regular "Snooki" shows signs of pathos and self-knowledge. "Ah'm just a Smoif!" [smurf], she laments, when she realises she's too short to reach some of the ice cream she's selling. The rest, meanwhile, are beyond parody. It's brilliant but shameful television.

Yet perhaps the makers of Jersey Shore have a point (they're making a UK spinoff, after all). No one wants to watch sensible, balanced and good natured TV. Equilibrium is shockingly boring. Mundanity is unbearable to watch, and we love the lurid. The difference is that Jersey Shore is honest about the squalid bargain it makes with its audience, and in an odd sort of way is far more wholesome than the creepy nannying that shows like SuperScrimpers are all about.

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Alexander Hay

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