Meet the Original JWoww and Snooki, Would-Be Stars of Bridge & Tunnel

Brianna and Gabriella almost escaped from Staten Island. But MTV pulled the plug on the original Jersey Shore

Alycia recently distanced herself from Frank, an unseen suitor whose desire for commitment threatens to prevent her from pursuing a career. "I wanna do my dreams," she declares, her hair blowing in the Staten Island Ferry wind. "I wanna go to the city and become a fashion journalist." As she wagers on fashion-merchandising LIM College, she enjoys the company of Vinnie, Carmine, Mike Nunziata, Anthony, and various others, but sums up her unwillingness to get serious thusly: "Am I gonna sit here when I'm 40, and my children are fricking annoying me, and my husband is on the couch picking his ball sack or something, and I'm gonna wonder what if?" No, she will not. Except that she just realized she's in love with Vinnie.

The pilot's dark horse is Timmy's ex-girlfriend, a Newport-sucking toughie who dreams of becoming a music producer. One day, hanging out with Tim and two other friends under a bridge, she fantasizes about life with money. "We could all just take the ferry, go to the city," she muses. "Eat in a nice restaurant, like ESPN Zone or Planet Hollywood. Somethin' wit' a theme." That's Brianna.

The episode's delivery date was October 26, 2009. Jersey Shore would debut December 3, 2009.

Brianna DeBartoli's relationship with reality TV began, like many broken promises, on Craigslist. Her father cut off his two daughters at 16, and the 17-year-old high school dropout was searching for employment. She spotted a casting call for Tool Academy, a VH1 show "dedicated to taking the most arrogant, dishonest, thoughtless and unfaithful boyfriends and transforming them into husband material,” according to an extant online synopsis. Conveniently, Brianna had a long-term boyfriend, future EMT wannabe Timmy, whom she believed deserved a surprise trip to "relationship boot camp" and applied. Tool Academy was full, but the casting director rerouted her to another project in development for Viacom, a very early incarnation of Bridge & Tunnel. (It's worth noting that Tool Academy producer SallyAnn Salsano is the woman ultimately credited with Jersey Shore's success.)

Bridge & Tunnel wasn't originally limited to Staten Island. Conceived as a documentary-style reality show about New York kids growing up in Manhattan's shadow who wanted more—whatever more was—but didn't know exactly how to get it, Bridge & Tunnel originated at the independent production company Ish Entertainment. In the spring of 2008, Ish hired Doron Ofir, the same L.A.-based casting director who would later recruit Jersey Shore, to interview outer-borough kids and to film them throwing parties. Brianna became a test subject.

You wouldn't get this from the sloppy catfights posted on Perez Hilton, but empathy, not ridicule, inspired Bridge & Tunnel. Naomi Bulochnikov, the show's stiletto-heeled creator, was raised in a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with her grandparents, her parents, and her older sister. "I always had that feeling of 'How am I gonna get out of here?' " Her objective with Bridge & Tunnel was to humanize that struggle. "There's a reason why these kids are the way they are," she says. "They have to adapt to their environment. If you grew up in Staten Island, you fist-pump. That's what you do." Her older sister Stella escaped to Los Angeles at 18, eventually co-founded Ish with Michael Hirschorn and now executive-produces the Starz original drama Boss starring Kelsey Grammer. The kids Bulochnikov wanted to depict didn't have this kind of role model. "What do you do when you have all these dreams and all these goals, but you have no way of getting them, you have no one to guide you? You have no money. You have no way of getting out. Manhattan to you is a world away."

A Bridge & Tunnel 13-minute "sizzle tape" presented to MTV in the fall of 2008 was so well-received that a pilot for the network began shooting in January 2009. At one point, a source close to the production reports that MTV network execs suggested throwing the cast in a house with a hot tub, titling the show Staten Island, and seeing what happened. Bridge & Tunnel's producers declined. This was a series about kids with stories, not kids whose only stories were the show.

Rough-draft clips appeared during MTV's April 2009 upfronts, the annual period when networks unveil their upcoming projects to lure early advertising dollars. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Choire Sicha proclaimed Bridge & Tunnel "the greatest show you've never seen" that "deeply scratches an itch you don't even know you have."

Meanwhile, MTV ran for the sandpaper—Brianna even remembers her casting director asking if she knew any guidos for a new show. Over at VH1, there'd been a project floating around about Jersey stereotypes, one of whom was a former mortgage broker named Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino. The Spam-skinned douchebag who would make the unseemly acronym D.T.F. (Down To Fuck) a catchphrase, the Situation became the only returning cast member when the series moved over to MTV under SallyAnn Salsano, best known for Shot of Love, a kind of bisexual Bachelor starring MySpace boob-stick Tila Tequila. Sorrentino went off to Seaside Heights, where he and seven other cartoons underwent the Real World's Molotov-cocktail approach: hurl volatile characters at a Jacuzzi-furnished house-share and immediately get them lit. Nicole Polizzi, an aspiring veterinarian nicknamed Snooki, had just watched a horse fart (not a euphemism) on an episode of MTV's inverse-matchmaking reality show Is She Really Going Out With Him? This was apparently exactly what MTV wanted out of Jersey Shore.

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