The imminent demise of Big Brother had seemed to sound the death-knell for a certain type of reality TV show – the one where a bunch of horny young exhibitionists and wannabes get thrown together in a house bristling with cameras. Try telling that to MTV in the States however, who, probably to their own surprise, have created the hottest show of the winter. On the face of it, Jersey Shore is nothing new, replicating the now nearly 20-year-old formula of MTV's The Real World as it follows eight housemates over the course of one summer in a New Jersey "shore house" (a sort of shared holiday let). It's an East Coast riposte to the West Coast The Hills, if you like, but what has catapulted Jersey Shore to the forefront of the national consciousness in America is the window it has opened on a largely ignored Italian-American youth sub-culture. Oh, and the invaluable free publicity that comes from a heated controversy. Welcome to the world of "guidos" and "guidettes".
For what the "N word" is to African-Americans, and the "F word" to US gays, so the "G word" can reverberate through the Italian-American psyche like fingernails on a chalk-board. And when MTV used it in the advertising for Jersey Shore, announcing to the world that the show was about "the hottest, tannest, craziest guidos" in New Jersey's beach communities, the proverbial hit the fan. UNICO, an organisation that promotes the image of Italian-Americans, accused MTV of "crude stereotyping". Said their spokesman, Andre DiMino: "If you replace Italian-Americans with any other ethnic group, would they use such a pejorative term to promote the show?"
In the meantime advertisers started getting jumpy (one of them, Domino's Pizza, pulled out), while other brands have apparently been quietly shunning the show, putting MTV on the defensive. "The Italian-American cast takes pride in their ethnicity," read a statement from the station. "We understand that this show is not intended for every audience and depicts just one aspect of youth culture." Andre DiMino wasn't impressed by MTV's reaction. "They're trying to sweep it under the rug," he said. "We've lived through The Sopranos, when we were all gangsters and thugs, and now we're being portrayed as buffoons."
So what is a "guido" in the context of Jersey Shore? Think Tony Manero, John Travolta's working class Italian character in Saturday Night Fever – preening and cocksure and taking great pain in his appearance, and then drag him into the 21st century. Or, as the programme's promotional website puts it: "There's no spray tan too orange, no hair too spiked and no bod too tight for this crew." The eight guidos and guidettes (the female of the species) in Jersey Shore wear the badge proudly – appropriating this derisive term for themselves in the same way that some Afro-Americans have taken possession of the N word.
"It's just a lifestyle of taking care of your body and getting a tan and certain clothes that you wear – of being proud of who you are. You can have guido style even if you aren't Italian," says housemate Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, a former underpants model and one of the two breakout stars of Jersey Shore, when we spoke this week. In Sorrentino's view, sensitivity over the term "guido" is a generational thing. "And if the older generation doesn't understand, I'm not going to hold it against them. We're just having fun."
"The Situation" is a nickname that comes complete with a well-worn anecdote, which can be boiled down to the fact that "the situation" is Sorrentino's impressive – if you like that kind of thing – abdominal muscles. All the guys in Jersey Shore have well developed musculature, the result of a daily gym habit. "It's pretty difficult," explains "The Situation". "Cardio five to six times a week. Eat healthy, resist temptations. No candy or snacks. It's the recipe for "The Situation" and I happen to know that recipe."
If the "Situation" nickname started as a joke, with the phenomenal success of the show it's just become a lot more serious. When someone tried to trademark the monicker, Sorrentino's lawyers had to act quickly. After all, it's a branding goldmine. "My nickname has become one of the biggest in America," says Sorrentino, who is already developing a male fragrance he wants to call "Sitch", while there have been adverts for Reebok shoes, and he's hoping to make a fitness video. Perhaps he ought to get an intellectual property lawyer to work on another of his creations – the expression "GTL" – the initials standing for Gym, Tan, Laundry.
"GTL is something that I coined," he says. "It's sort of my schedule every day that I wake up. I go to the gym, if I need colour, I'll tan, and I'll do laundry to look good. If you do GTL, then you'll look good and feel good." And Sorrentino knew that he had arrived when, visiting a Los Angeles nightclub with new buddy Kevin Connolly from Entourage, he was greeted by Leonardo DiCaprio. "He high-fived me and said 'GTL!'" says Sorrentino. And DiCaprio is just one of many celebrity Jersey Shore fans, others including Mike Tyson, Jay Leno and Snoop Dogg. As Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, the other breakout star of the show, put it: "We were, like, 'Oh my God, they're bigger fans of us than we are of them'."
Polizzi was on the other end of the second controversy that helped make Jersey Shore the most talked about show in America. It was the moment, in the second episode, when she is punched in the face by a man later revealed as a New York PE teacher, a sequence that has become a huge hit on the internet. "We were at a bar, this drunk guy came over to us and was stealing our shots," says Polizzi. "I got into his face and he couldn't handle it – he just punched me right in the face."
The self-proclaimed Princess of Poughkeepsie, "Snookie" is perhaps the most annoying but also the most touching of the housemates, who also include Angelina "Jolie" Pivarnick, with her "all natural figure". My favourite Angelina quote so far is when she starts work at the T-shirt store where all the housemates are obliged to earn their keep, and says "I feel this work is beneath me ... I'm a bartender." Then there is Jenni "JWoww" Farley, who is self-evidently not all natural, who dumps her long-term boyfriend to have a relationship with fellow housemate Pauly D, a Rhode Island DJ with his very own tanning machine back home. Sammi "Sweetheart" Giancola ("the sweetest bitch you'll ever meet") also chooses a fellow housemate over the mile-upon-mile of promenading beefcake outside the shore house. The fact that she selects the muscle-bound Ronnie Ortiz-Magro over Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, gives the Sitch's bravado a long overdue battering.
Does this sound like I'm getting hooked? Like a sizeable proportion of America, I could if I let myself. At first sight, Jersey Shore may seem grimly familiar voyeuristic TV, but as "The Sitch" says when I ask him why he thinks it's become such a phenomenon, "Each episode is more action-packed than a whole season of other reality shows." And, as "Snookie" adds: "We do what they would love to do. We really don't care. I think that's why people love it so much."
'Jersey Shore' starts on 21 March at 9pm on MTV