New Jersey steals the show
The action starts early at Diane & Co., an unassuming dress shop lodged in a strip mall on a busy stretch of highway in central New Jersey. The doors had barely opened on a recent spring morning, and a gaggle of customers was already on hand to sample the store’s exhaustive inventory of formal gowns.
As sales clerks lugged samples to the dressing rooms, proprietor Diane Scali had her ear to the phone, chewing out a supplier. “He’s not going to push me up against the wall!” she declared to her husband, Sal, slamming down the phone.
She stomped away, barely dodging a boom mike dangling overhead. Two cameramen scrambled to follow her.
It was another dollop of drama for the hottest trend in reality television: New Jersey verite.
Scali stars in “Jersey Couture,” an upcoming show on the Oxygen cable channel about a squabbling but tight-knit family that runs a dress shop. The program, which premieres June 1, comes amid a Garden State craze: MTV has rounded up Snooki and her pals for a second season of its raucous summer party show “Jersey Shore,” while the Style Network is airing “Jerseylicious,” a series about a Green Brook hair salon “where big hair meets even bigger personalities.” The second season of “Cake Boss,” about a Hoboken pastry chef, just concluded on TLC. And Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey” -- whose debut last year was the most-watched first season of the “Housewives” franchise -- returns to the air May 3.
“There’s no question that there’s been an explosion of reality television here,” said Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. “America seems to be fascinated with what is going on here, or what is perceived to be going on.”
The Age of Jersey marks an evolution of the state’s long-standing role as a punching bag, depicted by comedians as a provincial wasteland of highways and mall rats. The stereotype of the tacky Jerseyan was perpetuated by entertainers across the Hudson River in New York, who “found it fashionable to put down their country cousins,” said Michael Aaron Rockland, coauthor of “Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike.” Shows like “Saturday Night Live” took the joke national, with the acerbic character Roseanne Roseannadanna regularly berating a dense viewer from Fort Lee, N.J.
But native son Bruce Springsteen helped transform New Jersey’s rough-hewn image with songs that lionized the working class. When HBO’s “The Sopranos” became a hit, the state’s tangled history with mobsters and corruption was cast as a high-gloss drama. (This fall, HBO takes on another era of Jersey history with the Martin Scorsese-produced series “Boardwalk Empire,” set in 1920s Atlantic City.)
The sudden glut of Jersey reality shows underscores how the state’s loudmouth reputation has been embraced by its residents, said Rockland, who teaches American Studies at the state’s Rutgers University. “New Jerseyans are now very proud of the fact they have attitude,” he said. “That’s what these shows are doing: flaunting things we used to be ashamed of.”
Amy Introcaso-Davis, senior vice president of programming and development for Oxygen, chalks up the interest in Jersey to “the authenticity of the people.”
“There’s just less of a self-editing process,” said Introcaso-Davis, a Jersey Shore native. “Listen, I’m thrilled as a Jersey person that Jersey is finally in!”
To be specific, one kind of Jerseyan is in: The current crop of shows all feature brassy, in-your-face characters, most of them Italian American.
“Everyone in some respects wants a little bit of that unapologetic attitude,” said Salaam Coleman Smith, president of the Style Network, who green-lighted “Jerseylicious” last fall after seeing ratings surge when the network’s stylist-swapping show “Split Ends” featured Jersey salons.
But some fret that the brawls on “Jersey Shore” and vicious fights between the Jersey housewives perpetuate a negative stereotype.
“That’s just a continuation of the perception that has existed for a long time, that low-class sense of New Jersey,” said lifelong state resident Donna Montanaro Dolphin, associate professor of communication at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J.
It’s a dilemma for Jersey officials, who enjoy the business that comes with the television productions but not necessarily the portrayals.
“None of them are necessarily accurate,” said Gorelick, noting that most of the cast of “Jersey Shore” hail from New York. The self-described “guidos” and “guidettes” -- derogatory slang words for Italian Americans -- bickered and boozed their way through the summer.
MTV officials said the program isn’t meant to be a reflection of the state.
“I think the kids are just being who they are,” said Chris Linn, the network’s executive vice president of production. “No one is saying they are representative of New Jersey.” (In fact, the second season is being shot in Miami Beach, until the weather warms on the Jersey shore.)
Andy Cohen, senior vice president of original programming and development for Bravo, argued that “Housewives” depicts “a real slice of life in New Jersey, without editorialization.”
“I think it’s fun that these women are committed to a level of taste that is purely their own,” he said. Season 2 promises more of the same bling-heavy fashion and bare-knuckle rivalries. “It only takes one good smack to the head to make a person never walk again,” housewife Danielle Staub warns in an upcoming episode.
But with “Jersey Couture,” the newest arrival, the Scali family is determined to offer a more nuanced portrayal of the state.
“There’s a stigma that someone from Jersey will wear a short leopard dress and look trashy,” said Kimberly Gambale, 29, Diane Scali’s eldest daughter. “Hopefully, they’ll see that Jersey is more than that stereotype, so much more. We’re not the girls who party and go dance on tables. We’re workaholics.”
“Someone called me Snooki during filming and I was like, ‘There’s nothing about me that’s like that!’ ” her sister, Christina Scali, 27, added indignantly, referring to the MTV star who was punched in a bar last season.
The siblings, along with their 24-year-old brother, Anthony, work 80 hours a week in their mother’s store, where they pride themselves on finding exactly the right dress for any woman.
“We’re very in-your-face,” admitted Gambale, who calls customers “hotness” and “sexy.” “We’re like, ‘That looks gross, take it off.’ We don’t lie. ‘You think you look skinny in that? Your mooper and your pooper are hanging out!’ ”
Such frankness, along with the family’s high-volume banter, captured the attention of freelance producer Jacqueline Cardillo Garofano last year when she brought in her mother to find a dress for Garofano’s wedding.
“It was loud and fun and reminded me of my home,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You guys are nuts, you guys need a show!’ ” She pitched the idea to producer Brian Flanagan, who was sold the instant he met the family.
“I don’t consider this a Jersey show,” Flanagan said.
“We have loud, we have fights, but it’s couched in family and business in a way that’s real and truthful.”
That’s the hope of Diane Scali, known in her family as “The Tornado,” as she contemplated the family’s imminent fame. “Maybe,” she offered, snapping her fingers and singing, a la Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” “we’ll bring Jersey back!”