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Reality TV loves Alaska, mocks New Jersey

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By Ellen Gray
Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, 8:39 p.m.
 

Rugged individualists are from Alaska. Wusses — and whiners — are from New Jersey.

Or so says “reality” television, which — ignoring the famed bridge sign “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” and Bruce Springsteen — has painted the Garden State as a place of tacky, conspicuous consumption while making the 49th state look like the coolest place on earth.

And for that I blame Richard Proenneke. And Snooki. And, of course, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

The late Proenneke — focus of a documentary, “Alone in the Wilderness,” a PBS pledge-break staple that's launched untold numbers of middle-aged men on to Alaskan cruises — is the granddaddy of Alaskan “reality.” The retired mechanic filmed himself as he built a cabin in remote Twin Lakes, Alaska, where he continued to live on and off for 30 years, hunting and fishing and communing with nature.

The Discovery Channel, which has at least a half-dozen shows set in Alaska, should probably build a shrine to Proenneke.

A few years ago, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, the height-challenged breakout star of MTV's “Jersey Shore,” traveled from Marlboro, N.Y., to Seaside Heights to be filmed with a bunch of other people with equally absurd nicknames engaging in drunk and disorderly conduct.

“Jersey Shore” wrapped up its six-season run Dec. 20, but Snooki, who's gotten rich off this gig, is still polluting New Jersey, along with fellow “Shore” alum Jenni “JWoww” Farley. Their spinoff, “Snooki & JWoww,” begins its second season on MTV Jan. 8.

Like the state's “Real Housewives,” Snooki and her friends have somehow found a way to make a terrific living talking behind one another's backs even as, thousands of miles away, tough, desperate men — and a few tough, desperate women — risk life and limb to keep their heads above water in a slow economy, their efforts chronicled in shows like Discovery's “Gold Rush” and “Deadliest Catch” or History's “Ice Road Truckers.”

Yes, there's discord, even backbiting, on some of those shows, but most of it's set against a spectacular backdrop.

Because, let's face it — Alaska is cool.

Last summer, my Proenneke-worshiping husband, our younger son and I left New Jersey (where we've lived for 11 years) and spent a couple of weeks traveling on Alaska's state ferry system. On the way up from Bellingham, Wash., we met several young Coast Guard families headed for a posting at Kodiak — headquarters for the Weather Channel's “Coast Guard Alaska” — and spent a few days in Haines, near which parts of “Gold Rush” are filmed.

I didn't encounter a single film crew, but I met plenty of people whose reality seemed closer to what we're seeing on television than anything with “Jersey” in the title comes to the place I call home.

Ellen Gray is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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