Images of a State at the End of an Era
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, on January 16, Chris Christie will become the first Governor of New Jersey to complete two terms in office in almost thirty years. We therefore approach the end of a period to which I must reluctantly refer as the Christie era, an epoch which has taken the citizens of the Garden State on a thrill ride through eleven credit rating downgrades, one of the slowest recoveries from the recession in the country, and at least one instance of vindictive corruption so obscene it warranted a “-gate” suffix. Still, it’s difficult to say New Jersey is a national joke (after all, one of our senators hasn’t been on trial for accepting bribes in the last calendar year!), so, as we New Jerseyans count down the days left under our fearless leader, I hope you’ll forgive me for succumbing, if briefly, to nostalgia for the development of our 2010s image.
Perhaps every New Jersey governor has his defining cultural parallel. The Sopranos (1999-2007), which still lends the state the bulk of whatever class we retain, could be seen as a reaction to the staid, white-bread corruption of Donald DiFrancesco (term: 2001-02), who took illegal campaign donations but easily bridged the gap between skeevy and suburban. Plus, Centanni’s Meat Market, where Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) hangs out in the pilot, is in Elizabeth, a city DiFrancesco represented in the State Senate when the show premiered. And maybe Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004) is a symbol for the administration of Jim McGreevey (2002-04). Both were edgy in an inoffensive way, indie, grassroots—and both, eventually, led to disappointments—McGreevey’s resignation from the governorship (he had an affair) and Braff’s effective resignation as a filmmaker (he made Wish I Was Here).
So what’s the great opus of the Christie years? His inauguration, in 2010, came at an odd time for the state. The Sopranos was over, and our novelist laureate, Philip Roth, was hanging up his hat; his last novel, Nemesis, came out in October 2010. (It’s about a creeping disease overtaking New Jersey. Can’t fault the guy for timing.) What we were left with is probably the defining image of our fair state in the modern era—the MTV reality series Jersey Shore (2009-12), which premiered on December 3, 2009, one month to the day after Christie squeaked past incumbent Jon Corzine in the gubernatorial election. Like Christie, the cast is of Italian ancestry and almost defensively proud of New Jersey—only two, Deena Nicole Cortese and Samantha “Sweetheart” Giancola, were actually born and raised in-state, as Christie was, but that’s by the by. After all, the parallels go more than skin-deep. Witness the show’s de facto star, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi (like Christie, she currently lives in Morris County), who opined, in a 2011 episode, “I don’t care if you talk shit about me. Talk shit about me all you want.” Compare with Christie, confronted with his 15% approval rating in June 2017. “The fact is, who cares? You guys care much more about that stuff than I do… And I don’t care.” Two weeks later, Christie proved his point by helping himself to a closed public beach on the very same Jersey shore. I rest my case.
Interested in higher-brow, Sopranos-adjacent fare? Look no further than Terence Winter’s HBO drama Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), in which Steve Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson, a corrupt elected official (in this case, the Treasurer of Atlantic County) in the 1920s and ‘30s. In a 2011 episode, Kelly Macdonald, as Nucky’s wife Margaret, as an act of revenge against her husband, signs away valuable land on which her husband had planned to build a road and bridge from Atlantic City to Philadelphia—vengeance via public works a full two years before “some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” And Thompson’s eventual ironclad grip on Atlantic City is nothing compared to Christie’s literal state takeover of that city in November 2016 after its near-bankruptcy. “I can’t wait any longer,” Christie told the media in 2015, while considering the decision. “We need more aggressive action.” The takeover team was authorized to restore Atlantic City to solvency “by any and all… means.” How’s that for empire?
“But a big governor deserves a big screen, and, fittingly, when Christopher Nolan needed a backdrop for The Dark Knight Rises (2012), a film about an area in such rampant decline that the concept of destroying it with a nuclear bomb gets tossed around with a degree of seriousness, he came to Newark.” But lest the residents of the Brick City get swelled heads, keep in mind that in a Nolan press release in November 2011, when the third Dark Knight film was still shooting there, Newark was not listed among the filming locations. Ah, well. As last year’s Republican primary made fully clear to our estimable chief executive, you win some, you lose some.
What, then, can we say is America’s view of New Jersey, at the end of these eight long, long years? An urban wasteland overrun by musclebound pro-wrestler types? A political landscape stuck in the Prohibition era? A commune of the generously tanned? And where do we go from here? We’ve had governors like Christie’s incoming successor, Phil Murphy, before—in fact, we had one just eight years ago, when Corzine, another boring, white, former Goldman Sachs executive from outside the state, held the reins of power. But we’ve never seen, and may never see, another governor like Chris Christie. That Livingston heartthrob who screamed at protesters to “Sit down and shut up,” who vetoed animal welfare legislation supported by 91% of the state while campaigning for Iowa pig farmers, who called Donald Trump a “thin-skinned,” “13-year-old” “carnival barker” and then jumped on board as Trump’s McDonald’s boy—a man like that comes around once in a state’s lifetime. But take heart, friends! Despite everything, a Jersey Shore reunion is still coming in 2018.