Cindy Clark, USA TODAY
TOMS RIVER, NJ - When sitting down to dinner with all eight members of the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore, one doesn't know quite what to expect.
Will there be body shots? A food fight? Any kind of fight?
They have, after all, earned a rowdy reputation for knocking back drinks, throwing punches and, in general, causing quite a scene.
But on this sunny summer evening, nestled into a back room at Rivoli's, their favorite local Italian restaurant, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, 24; Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, 30; Jenni "JWOWW" Farley, 26; Pauly "DJ Pauly D" DelVecchio, 32; Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, 26; Sammi Giancola, 25; Vinny Guadagnino, 24; and Deena Cortese, 25, are all on their best behavior. Probably not best behavior according to manners maven Emily Post, but pretty polished for what fans of the show might otherwise envision.
Filming of the reality show's sixth - and final - season has just wrapped, and once dinner is over, they're free to head home. They've recently been reunited with their cellphones (a no-no during filming - who wants to watch them sit around and text?) and are trying their hardest to keep them out of sight.
Diet Cokes and waters are being sipped, and heaping plates of pasta, fried mozzarella and bruschetta are being passed around family-style. It's fitting, considering the cast says they've finished the season (premiering Thursday, 10 ET/PT) as one big happy family - one that, to date, has formed MTV's highest-rated series in the network's history.
In fact, the vibe is so rah-rah positive, it's almost as if they've spent the summer in group therapy.
In a marked shift from seasons past, they say the drama, for the most part, stayed outside of the house. "We are like brothers and sisters, so we had little arguments here and there," says Cortese. "But nothing major."
Ortiz-Magro, who has been in several blow-up arguments with his castmates in past seasons, chalks it up to "constructive criticism. We tell each other what we're doing wrong, and we don't take it to heart because we know, deep down inside, we're trying to help each other."
Farley chimes in: "We love each other."
But with Polizzi seven months pregnant with her first child and Sorrentino recovering from an addiction to prescription drugs, there was bound to be a change in behavior. (Polizzi and her fiancé, Jionni LaValle, welcomed baby boy Lorenzo Dominic LaValle on Aug. 26.)
"We were adjusting to living with Nicole, and I'm sure the other roommates were also adjusting to living with somebody who had just gotten out of rehab," says Sorrentino, bringing up the sensitive subject without being asked.
'Like when we first met'
Having the support of his roommates meant everything. "I was worried coming into it, because obviously, I've never gone a summer - or a season - sober," he says with a nervous laugh. "Coming into this particular time, I had a lot of things to worry about With the help of my roommates, everything worked in my favor." Still, he says, "I went to the clubs every night." Some habits die hard, but his friends have rallied around him.
"Mike is back to Summer 1," says DelVecchio.
"Like when we first met Mike," says Polizzi. "Not a jerk."
"When we first started this, I feel like we didn't know each other, and we would go through things, and we would kind of be in a lost place," says Guadagnino. He's by far the quietest of the group, but when he does choose to speak, everyone listens. "Now, these are my real friends in real life. We've been together so long, when I have a problem, I feel comfortable going up to them, and now that's what gets us through. We really are friends. We used to just run up to the producers (for help)."
But every family has its own dose of dysfunction. At one point, a pre-pregnant Polizzi and Guadagnino shared a friends-with-benefits fling, and Ortiz-Magro and Giancola are notorious for their on-again, off-again relationship. Right now, they say, it's on. Even more so than ever: The couple are planning to move in together.
"Things couldn't be better for us right now," says a smiling, soft-spoken Giancola.
"Ron just proposed," jokes DelVecchio, as the cast erupts into laughter and Ortiz-Magro's eyebrows fly north. On a more serious note, "I think they came a long way," adds DelVecchio. "If they can get through what they got through, they can be together forever."
The roommates, who weren't always supportive of the relationship, all voice their agreement.
"We've all kind of been in a relationship with them," says Guadagnino.
Polizzi, who resided in her own house "literally 10 steps away" from the main house, says she "enjoyed this summer. I definitely did it differently" because of the pregnancy. "You're so used to seeing me drink and party and go crazy. This time, I just enjoyed it being normal. " Clubbing, she says, "is not what I'm looking for now."
Filming is their vacation
So much maturity and rationality from someone who, on a prior season, was arrested for disorderly conduct.
"We're all the same, we just grew up," says Guadagnino. "Definitely things are changing, but that's what happens when people get older."
DelVecchio calls the show "life-changing. We came in and everybody was single. They've got boyfriends now, she got knocked up - but that's real life," he says "(Sorrentino) had a problem, and he struggled with it but got over it, and that's real life. And that's why I like the show."
Still, the cast members claim that this is the best season yet and promise their fans crazy antics, pranks and all of that outside-of-the-house drama. To their critics and naysayers who might cringe at the thought of more Shore, they insist the show is "a vacation for us, because when we're not filming, we're working really hard to build our brands," says Farley.
But "vacations" - especially ones where you get paid - don't last forever. After three years and six seasons, Jersey Shore had a good run while it lasted, says Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media. "I find that there's, like, a comet that goes through television every three years with guilty pleasures," says Simon. "Three years seems to be the period that Americans can be fascinated with a subculture and then totally forget about it."
Shore viewership has been dropping since its peak of 8.9 million during Season 3 in January 2011. But the random hookups and daily GTL routine (that would be gym, tanning, laundry) have continued to fascinate younger viewers: The show has been the top-rated cable series for ages 12-34 consecutively for all five seasons.
"It was a pop-culture phenomenon," says Simon. "Especially for a younger demographic, it was almost obsessive to see the show and see it again and talk about it. You've got to get people talking. It doesn't matter whether it's positive or negative."
The allure, he says, is in "trying to understand who they are. It was just a subculture that so many people in this country did not know about with their own way of doing things, own way of talking. You do have that slight anthropological distance as you look at the show. You can look at it with empathy, with disgust, whatever."
However you look at it, there are "no regrets," says Farley.
"If we're saying goodbye, it's just to the house, not to each other," says Ortiz-Magro.
"We'll still get together," adds Polizzi.
"I'll feel sad," says DelVecchio. "But if we're not filming (another season), I'm still coming back next summer!"