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The Secret To Great Reality TV? Look To New Jersey

In 2009 and 2010, the Garden State premiered a spate of culture-defining shows. The rest of the country is still catching up.

Stars of New Jersey reality TV shows like 'Cake Boss,' 'The Real Housewives of New Jersey,' and 'Jer...

I never felt like a true “Jersey girl” growing up, even though I’m from a small town in the Garden State. Jersey girls, I thought, were those who could effortlessly rock big hair like the Giudices or whip together a chicken Parm from memory like the Valastros — the reality TV families I knew from The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Cake Boss. I, on the other hand, was raised in a Puerto Rican family without any generational ties to the state and didn’t enjoy summers at the shore or know what gabagool was.

But even if I didn’t feel like a Jersey girl, I loved watching them. Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola’s vocal fry was mesmerizing. The Tuscan-style decor in nearly every Housewife’s kitchen during the early seasons of RHONJ was both familiar and nostalgic. The lighthearted attitude Grace would give her brothers while working with them at the bakery on Cake Boss was so relatable. Similar shows based in Los Angeles and New York (in Jersey parlance, The City) just didn’t hold my attention the same way.

In this, I am not alone. No matter how many people call New Jersey the armpit of America, viewers cannot get enough of it. The trifecta of Jersey Shore, Cake Boss, and Real Housewives all premiered in 2009 and have had a lasting impact on pop culture: RHONJ is coming up on its 14th season and continues to attract millions of viewers; Jersey Shore, which set ratings records during its original MTV run, has inspired several spin-offs; Cake Boss brought so much success to Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken that it’s expanded to nine other states (and to Brazil, too). This Jersey fever also led to lesser-known, shorter-lived shows like Jerseylicious and Jersey Couture, which both debuted in 2010.

The Season 5 Reunion for The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Bravo/NBCUniversal/Getty Images
A 2010 album release party for Jersey Shore.Jerritt Clark/WireImage/Getty Images
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The format of these shows wasn’t novel at the time — workplace docu-soaps and kids-gone-wild shows were already staples on networks like MTV and TLC — but the New Jersey element brought a special magic. While Jersey Shore still provided a familiar level of petty drama (“Ron, stahp!”), it was the candid moments of friendship and silly pranks that charmed viewers. Unlike other competitive cooking shows, Cake Boss had a heartwarming collaborative camaraderie. And RHONJ is, as The New York Times wrote back in 2009, “the apotheosis of the Bravo ‘Real Housewives’ franchise,” largely because “the camera crew seems to be eavesdropping, rather than masterminding.”

All these years later, even those closest to the phenomenon struggle to put their finger on that special Jersey allure viewers crave. “I still can’t understand it, sometimes,” Cake Boss star Mauro Castano tells Bustle. “I think, personally, a lot of it has to do with the family thing. In New Jersey, family and food are very important, and they go so well together.”

The combination of family and food is indeed a consistent theme. More than any other Housewives series, RHONJ focuses on family and the drama that comes with it — in any given season, at least two or three key cast members are related, and fights have broken out over sprinkle cookies. The cast of Jersey Shore, despite sharing no blood relation, acts as a kind of found family, complete with sit-down Sunday dinners, featuring, naturally, hamburgers and Ron Ron Juice. (Also recall early in Season 1, when Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and Ronnie Ortiz-Magro brawl at the bar with a stranger who comes for their housemate Snooki, because you “don’t mess with family.”)

What’s 100% real is that we’re family. I’ll fight with Buddy in the morning... but then, by lunchtime, we’re eating together, fighting over sports, asking ‘So, where are we going for dinner?’

Another key ingredient? Authenticity. As a viewer, you feel like a fly on the wall seeing the Jersey Shore crew troubleshoot clogged toilets, the Valastro squad regroup after dropping a cake down the stairs, and Teresa and Joe’s tearful attempts at co-parenting. Other seemingly family-centric series, like, say, Keeping Up With the Kardashians where heavily PR-trained sisters take turns hosting dinners prepared by private chefs in their eerily tidy homes — just don’t have the same effect.

“I know a lot of people think [reality TV is] all made up, but with us it was 75% to 95% to 100% real,” says Castano of Cake Boss. “What’s 100% real is that we’re family. I’ll fight with Buddy in the morning — and by fight, I mean we’ll argue over vanilla or chocolate or someone will say red velvet. But then, by lunchtime, we’re eating together, fighting over sports, asking ‘So, where are we going for dinner?’”

Probably a place where they know the waiters’ names and have a favorite table. Unlike the RHONY women, who regularly sample new, hip restaurants, New Jerseyans are likely to stick to regular haunts, which make those coincidental “run-ins” on TV feel more realistic.

Despite being the 11th most populated state, New Jersey’s size gives it a small-town feel: Growing up, if my family got dinner at the one nonchain restaurant in town, we’d see plenty of familiar faces. My friends who spend summers down the shore frequent Jenks, a Point Pleasant spot that’s been featured in Jersey Shore and RHONJ. Back in high school, I accidentally stumbled on the boutique featured in Jersey Couture when looking for a prom dress, and when I convinced my dad to drive me to Hoboken to visit Carlo’s Bakery, the faces from my television screen were working behind the counter. What you see really is what you get.

The Cake Boss team presents an edible version of New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena.Mike Stobe/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

As real as they are, though, New Jersey TV’s characters are also larger than life. You can’t see a hyperbolic hair pouf or fur-covered platform boots without thinking of Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi; Teresa Giudice flipped a table back in RHONJ’s first season, but the stunt is still a mainstay of the Housewives universe, heavily quoted and meme-ified to this day (“Pay attention, puh-lease!”). “They say it’s the table flip heard around the nation. It was the first really big thing that put Housewives on the map,” says Maggie Kelley, who runs the Instagram fan account @bestofbravo. “That was definitely a defining moment in Housewives history.”

Personalities like these inspire fierce devotion. “People become legit stans, not even fans; they’re hardcore,” says Dana Bowling, a former casting director and host of the pop culture podcast Daily Dose of Dana. “The vitriol that I’ve received online just from talking about these shows and the characters, you would think I’m talking about their daughter.” Hey, you don’t mess with family.

And while superfans like Kelley and Bowling aren’t from the Garden State themselves, they can see the appeal, which makes these shows a sweet point of pride for viewers like me, who’ve learned to appreciate Jersey by watching it on TV. As Mauro says, “Sometimes, I say to myself, ‘New York is across the river,’ but really, we’re like a part of New York City, too. We just got the better view.”

As for me? It’s been eight years since I left home for college, and I’m living in The City that used to seem so far away. Still, I find the most comfort in turning on a reality show set in New Jersey. What can I say? They have all the hallmarks of great television: messy drama, quotable moments, iconic fashion looks plus, the familiar twang of their accents makes me feel like I’m sitting at dinner with my childhood friends — the women I’m proud to call my fellow Jersey girls.