Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's a Jersey Thing: The Garden State as cultural bellwether

"F%ck New Jersey!" was the battle cry on South Park
"...we have all noticed a steep rise in everything Jersey."
- Randy Marsh, South Park

While the fictional expansion of the Garden State to "everything East of the Rocky Mountains" on South Park is meant as farce, there has been a steep rise in Jersey-ness this past week on the televison. Besides South Park slaying New Jersey's reality shows Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, this past week has been littered with plot-centric references to Jersey. Bones, Bored to Death and even Rubicon all found themselves utlizing Jersey as a place for answers. Add to that historical perspectives from Boardwalk Empire and the HBO documentary The Promise on Bruce Springsteen, and you might just have the most Jersey-centric week in popular culture in my television viewing lifetime.

Brennan looks at "guidos" from an anthropological perspective.
While both Bones and Rubicon featured the Jersey Shore in their mysteries this week, Bones slumning it in the waters of MTV's reality series seemed like more an attempt to attract viewers, while Rubicon tried more to grab at something at least a little bit deeper. The terrorist AIP has been indirectly hunting for on and off all season turns out to be a Jersey Shore Joey in "Wayward Sons." Rubicon uses the location as a breeding ground for boys who have lost their way (queue Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son"), and questions to family and friends help paint the picture of somebody who craves something deeper than the shallow waters on the Jersey Shore. It's likely the most subtle Jersey Shore reference you'll find all year, while still being explicit in it's locale. Oddly enough, the subtle Rubicon shares the Jersey-Al Qaeda plot interweaving with the never subtle South Park, with inverse usage. While Al Qaeda recruits a Jersey Shore resident to help destroy America, Randy Marsh recruits Al Qaeda to help stop Jersey Shore from doing the same. Class meets crass... it's a Jersey thing.

George (Ted Dansen) appreciates Jonathan's suburban roots: "I love New Jersey!" 
Bored to Death leaves the Shore behind, viewing Jersey instead from the more classic "bridge and tunnel" angle. Author Jonathan Ames grew up there, so it makes sense that the character he created based on him should as well, and returning to the bright and tranquil suburb proves advantageous when kidnapped by thugs (played by Jim Norton and Domenick "Herc from the Wire" Lombardozzi). "It's New Jersey, it’s too bright. You can't kill people here!"
The bad guys are forced to drive off with 10% of the promised payoff. "Jersey Sucks!" yells Jim Norton's character. But George (Ted Dansen), who just found out he has prostate cancer, relishes the stability of where Ames was raised. "I love New Jersey" he remarks, sipping warm cocoa while sitting in Ames' old bedroom.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm just noticing a lot of Jersey because I recently finished Alex Austin's excellent Jersey Shore-centric book The Red Album of Asbury Park Remixed. It's a rock n' roll noir that takes place in Springsteen's Jersey, Asbury Park in the late 60s to early 70s. Jersey boardwalk attractions Mr. Peanut and the Diving horses of Atlantic City figure prominently, luring in both tourists and our hero into the mystery. Much like Rubicon intimated this week, wayward sons rule the shore, only with organized crime taking advantage through strong arm recruiting. Don't get put off by the garish cover and the red herring of a title -- it's a fine read, especially for those who like a little rock in with their reading. Speaking of that, a free audio podcast reading of the book is currently streaming on, backed by a soundtrack of Asbury artists.

Free audiobook podcast on
Playlist: Novel Sndtrck - The Red Album of Asbury Park Remixed

The book makes for a decent Jersey cleanser, after dealing with the guidos and the "garbage" from you know where all this week. Also recommended: Any of Brian Williams' guest appearances on The Daily Show, Clerks, a Meryl Streep viewing marathon... and then later this month the big Springsteen box set for The Promise, featuring a ton of lost songs from the Boss.
Previously: Springsteen documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

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