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Are These TV Programs Really Destroying Society? Five Vilified Shows Critics Have Got Wrong

These are the worst shows on television. Or are they?

Everybody knows television rots your brain. But does it actually destroy society? As programming has been increasingly debauched—and our culture has gotten increasingly conservative—critics are louder and louder about “trashy” TV destroying our society, cannibalizing our morals and turning the social contract into worm food. While there’s certainly a lot of vapid, damaging, stereotype-perpetrating television out there—for a good overview, check out Reality Bites Back—lots of the critiques come from an equally dunderheaded place. Here are five of the most reviled television shows running, and why their critics are wrong. 

1. Jersey Shore

MTV’s booze-and-dramathon "Jersey Shore" is, by and large, the television show most cited as evidence America is about to incinerate into a blazing Babylon. It has been criticized for irresponsible alcoholism and wanton sluttiness; blamed for the dumbing-down of culture; and, last but not least, lambasted for painting a demeaning portrait of Italian-Americans everywhere.

And yet, the culture can’t get enough of the poofed-out, fake-tanned antics of wee Snooki, six-packed the Situation and company. Season four of the reality show debuted August 4 to MTV’s highest ratings ever, with a record eight million viewers, the fourth largest non-sports opening in 2011. Snooki in particular has become a major celebrity, amassing tens of thousands of dollars for party and college appearances. (In one particularly controversial moment, Snooki was paid $34,000 to advise graduating students of Rutgers University to “work hard... party harder.”) And while the criticisms continue, its popularity shows no signs of flagging. It is, frankly, immensely watchable and incredibly addictive—debauchery be damned. And thus far, none of the criticisms the reality behemoth has weathered have stuck.

One of the most interesting recent darts thrown was from preppy clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. In what has got to be the first-ever anti-placement fee, the company has offered “substantial payment” to the cast of "Jersey Shore"—specifically, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino—to avoid wearing its clothing on-air. The reason, via a statement: "We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently waiting a response."

Key words: “aspirational nature of our brand.” Perhaps Abercrombie means to invoke unhindered dream-following, but the word “aspirational” brings finances to mind, and unintentionally illuminates the problem with all the sky-is-falling freakouts around "Jersey Shore"—they are, for the most part, inherently classist. The cast—which hails mostly from Jersey and Long Island—is explicitly working- or middle-class, toting their hometowns’ thick accents. While some of them are, in fact, pretty smart (J-Woww) or kind (Snooki), they aren’t textbook intellectuals, and the redeeming qualities of their characters tend to be overshadowed in critiques by their “bangin’ beach bods” (J-Woww works out constantly and has implants, while Snooki’s recent weight loss stayed in tabloid headlines for weeks).

So inevitably, some who enjoy the show do so with a sort of haughtier-than-thou attitude, watching the "Jersey Shore" cast’s clubbing and boozing from a position of superiority. The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley said last week that “the show has remained popular despite its elitist cachet, partly by staying true to its artificiality,” citing an academic conference about "Jersey Shore" at the University of Chicago and a speech in which Obama namedropped Snooki. But Stanley also pointed out that “by the second season it was co-opted by the would-be hip, those viewers who revel less in the show itself than in the heady superiority of being in the know.” Perhaps she was talking about her coworker Cathy Horyn, whose criticism I normally adore, but whose profile of Snooki last year had a snobby, condescending bent to it, and who epitomized the high-class observer of "Jersey Shore," who seems to revel in the destruction of the “lower” classes.