Italy is an obscure region located somewhere within the country of Europe. Though the area is reportedly shaped like a boot, its exact boundaries are unknown. The unit of currency is the peso. You may want to check this data against the CIA Factbook, as my only source is Snooki. Last night, on the fourth-season premiere of Jersey Shore (MTV), she shared this info while wearing thigh-high Apennine Peninsula-shaped footwear seemingly crafted from the hides of a litter of plush-toy ocelots. To concoct this season's helping of reality-show id indulgence and vicarious idiocy, the gang headed to Italy, which, being self-identified guidos by cultural heritage, they claim as a motherland. In general, Snooki's colleagues have collected about as much information about the place as she has. Deena, for instance, laments that, knowing little Italian other than ciao and gracias, she will be reduced to communicating with men in nightclubs by waving her arms and shaking her ass. It is unclear how this varies from established patterns. However, Vinny, as always the most civilized of the group, has bothered to try to learn the language. Here he was early on, practicing in the mirror with his phrasebook. Here he was later on, translating pick-up lines in a disco. Also, he muses thoughtfully upon the auto-erotic possibilities of the bidet. MTV is milking the culture clash to the emptiest. The dominant theme of the episode concerned blow-drier voltage-converter setbacks, which is too bad. Some wags, upon hearing that Jersey Shore was heading abroad, began daydreaming that the castmates would try to lay low in Sicily for a while and learn the native ways and then practice driving with Michael Corleone's Alfa Romeo. Others rushed to assume that Italy was a euphemism for the seventh circle of Dante's Hell, where the cast would be punished for crimes against God and nature. Above the stretching sand, in slow descent, broad flakes of fire shower down on Ronnie and Sammi as snow falls in the hills on windless days .... But no, we're in Florence, and Jersey Shore is no epic. What we have here is commedia dell'arte, with its reliance on physical gags (Snooki falling over drunk, Deena falling over sober), stock situations (Pauly D primping), and humorous dancing (set to house music). The Lovers, or Innamorati, are The Situation and Snooki. ("It must be noted," scholars have written, "that the lovers are not only infatuated with each other, they are VERY infatuated with themselves.") It seems that he, having hooked up with her four or five times now—most recently when she had a devoted hometown boyfriend—is kinda starting to like her. This constitutes a crisis. Lust. Lust. Perhaps these carnal malefactors are being punished in the second circle. The hellish squall, which never rests, sweeps spirits in its headlong rush, tormenting, whirls and strikes them. ... No, no, that was just the preview of the shrieking follies yet to come this season, where paramedics will carry stretchers onto ambulances that whoop in the Continental fashion. But still, lust is the issue here. At a bon voyage party, a relative of Vinny's wonders what the first question he'll ask upon getting to Italy will be. He answers, "What is the age of consent?" Berlusconi himself could tell him it's 14. The other guys repeatedly advise the fathers of their host country to lock up their daughters, the husbands to handcuff their wives. But it is weirdly difficult to care, when absorbing oneself in their nonsense, whether the talk leads to any action, because the action only leads to another chance to talk talk talk. The virility is very sterile. Elsewhere, Ronnie and Sammi claim to have broken up definitively. They are now "Single Ronnie" and "Single Sammi." Single Ronnie promises, "There'll be no more me-and-Sam drama," causing the observant viewer to wonder what the point of him-and-Sam is. Theirs was and is a love-hate relationship, with the former only being interesting as fuel for the latter. What is striking—and confusing and also not without its primal ab-psych entertainment value—is how bloodless lust is on Jersey Shore and many other television shows trafficking in the promise of it. The daytime soaps, homemade masterpieces of old-fashioned trash romance, are fading away. Here and there in TV fiction—on Grey's Anatomy, say—you get some good gooeyness for tenderhearts. And on reality soaps you get romance totally mutated into florid exhibitionism. Doesn't meaningless sex mean anything any more?
In similar news, ABC will be giving its Monday night schedule over to the season premiere of Bachelor Pad. Here, 18 former contestants "who did not find lasting love" from the dating shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette will keep hope alive—pining for "The One," jockeying for a cash prize, participating in physical challenges derived in equal measure from corporate-retreat trust falls and spring-break body-paint parties. It is blisteringly unsentimental. The host lists many attractions—"backstabbing betrayals, dark secrets, love triangles"—but the audience tunes in mostly, I think, for the threats of revenge, as when one woman says to another, probably Vienna, "I will punch you in the face over and over and over again until I break you freakin' nose." Perhaps violence is the new romance, or at least the new sex.