The End Of New Jersey: Can The Garden State Ever Reclaim Its Cultural Cache?

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By Christopher Zara | October 12, 2012 6:59 AM EST

It was a brave new world for New Jersey in 2004: “The Sopranos” was one of the most talked-about shows on TV, Zach Braff’s “Garden State” defined Millennial disaffection and became the arthouse hit of the year, “Jersey Boys” had just begun out-of-town tryouts at the La Jolla Playhouse, and basketball phenom Jason Kidd led the Nets to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

What a difference eight years makes. Battered by six seasons of low-culture buffoonery on MTV’s “Jersey Shore” -- and roiled by the antics of the graceless Gov. Chris Christie -- the Garden State has all but lost the small bit of cultural capital it was able to save up during the New Jersey renaissance of the mid-00s.

The Nets, of course, have flown the coop for far more respectable digs in Brooklyn, where the team will play its first game at the Jay-Z-backed Barclays Center on Saturday. The proudly defiant Jersey Films -- which brought us such indie classics as “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty” -- now stands to lie in ruins amid the breakup of its owners, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Meanwhile, whatever remains of Jersey-centric pop culture is little more than a sad amalgam of false starts and thankless exits. Fox’s Jersey-set medical drama “House” bid farewell in May. Snooki and the gang will leave the airways in December, with MTV admitting that “Jersey Shore” has run its course. And viewers are understandably tiring of Guido jokes and fist pumps.

Of course, New Jersey has always suffered from an inferiority complex (as documented so methodically by the novelist and Newark native Philip Roth). “Saturday Night Live” has been cracking jokes at the state’s expense for almost 40 years, and if New Jersey has any national identity at all -- outside of its proximity to New York City -- it’s as a place where mobsters disposed of dead bodies. That perception seemed as if it were slowly changing in 1999 with the success of “The Sopranos,” which moved beyond goomba stereotypes to present a nuanced portrait of organized crime in the Garden State. What followed was street cred -- and cultural cred -- for a state that had long been written off as the country’s armpit.

Sadly, such cred is proving difficult to recapture. Since the beginning of the decade, Jersey culture has been defined largely by shallow reality shows like “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and “Jerseylicious,” while more serious offerings have been all but dead on arrival. On Wednesday, CBS announced it was yanking the low-rated legal drama “Made in Jersey,” about a feisty Jerseyan who lands a job at a posh law firm, from its fall schedule after only two airings. ABC’s alien-family comedy “The Neighbors,” which is set in a fictional New Jersey community, made a stronger start this fall, but then the series has not exactly flaunted its Garden State setting.

In music, Jersey culture has not fared much better. The state that gave us Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, the Four Seasons, Bruce Springsteen, Dionne Warwick, Gloria Gaynor, Whitney Houston, Deborah Harry, Queen Latifah, the Misfits and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is now known to a whole generation as the birthplace of the Jonas Brothers.

Still, all hope is not lost for Jersey culture, at least not yet. While Jerseyphiles wait for the next  Springsteen album and a hip new “Sopranos”-type phenomenon to define their state for a new era, it’s important to remember that HBO’s Atlantic City-set “Boardwalk Empire” is showing no signs of slowing down, and “Jersey Boys” is still pulling in more than $1 million a week at the August Wilson Theatre.

At the very least, when New Jerseyans run out of Garden State-centric entertainment, they can still catch the PATH to Manhattan for $2.25. That’s not too shabby.

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