Jersey Shore Jersey Shore

It's a drizzly winter afternoon in Seaside Heights, and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi — her newly slimmed-down body poured into a skintight dress that barely covers her backside — sits at the bar, legs crossed. Unlike the drunken, foulmouthed clown she seems to embody much of the time on the MTV reality hit Jersey Shore, Snooki is quiet, even demure, thanks in part to being under the weather. "I was burning up last night," she says. Her fever is accompanied by a sore throat and swollen glands. But, she says, "I know when to turn on the switch."

And turn it on she does, along with her seven other cast mates — Deena Cortese, "DJ Pauly D" DelVecchio, Jenni "JWoww" Farley, Sammi "Sweetheart" Giancola, Vinny Guadagnino, Ronnie Ortiz-Magro and Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino — scattered throughout the Beachcomber Bar and Grill in the town that launched them into pop-culture infamy. The gang, who wrapped filming months ago, has reunited at a favorite haunt in honor of Season 5. (The premiere aired January 5.) The mood is downright celebratory, with lots of smiles and hugs. "This," says JWoww, "is home."

Coming "home" this past summer was a welcome change of pace from the two previous months in Florence, Italy, where the cast felt isolated and out of place. "When they [got back], I think everyone licked the wood on the boardwalk," says exec producer SallyAnn Salsano. "It was a big exhale."

Not that it was smooth sailing. For starters, Vinny's mood plummeted. He was homesick for Staten Island — Seasons 4 and 5 filmed back-to-back — and temporarily left. "I needed a break," says Vinny. "A lot of drama was happening in Italy, and when you're done with that, you want to go home, have your bed — not more drama."

Losing the cast member who's arguably the most levelheaded was a blow to the group, particularly since they had no idea if he would return — or be replaced with a new roomie. "We were scared — we didn't want anyone else in the house," says Snooki. "Him leaving was very weird. It felt like something was missing in our family." Of course, Vinny couldn't stay away — after about a week, he says, he returned to Seaside. "All I can say is that I needed a break, I left, and you have to see what happens," Vinny says.

He wasn't the only one engaging in high drama. Look for Deena to likely partake in (even more) girl-girl action. Pauly will attract yet another "stalker." Sammi and Ronnie, unlike in tumultuous seasons past, relish their on-off courtship. "Our relationship was awesome," says Sammi. "It was fun, it was romantic — we had a great time together." (Following filming, the pair split again — both say the decision was mutual.) JWoww and beau Roger Mathews continue their love story, celebrating the one-year mark.

Meanwhile, expect more of the crackling tension between Mike and Snooki that began in Italy, where he revealed that they smushed while she was dating her boyfriend Jionni. "Mike lied — he made up stuff to break me and Jionni up. I think he wanted airtime or something," Snooki says. (For the record, Snooki says that after being broken up "for, like, a week," she and Jionni spent just about every subsequent night together in Seaside, and are now shaping plans to marry "and have, like, four kids.")

So how does Snooki cope with sleeping under the same roof as the enemy? "When I don't like someone, I pretend they don't exist," she says. "That's how it's been. I don't need friends like that in my life." Unsurprisingly, Mike continues to stick with his version of events. "Only me and Snooki know the real truth," he says.

That bottomless friction is familiar for this group, and with the new season under way, rumors are swirling that this could be curtains for Jersey Shore. Pauly D already has his own spin-off show, focusing on his career as a DJ and slated to premiere in late spring. Snooki and JWoww have one of their own that begins shooting this winter. And ratings for the mothership dropped last year — Season 4 dipped from an 8.8 million high to 6.6 million viewers for the finale — raising the question: Has the GTL gimmick begun to wear thin for audiences?

The cast, at least, is showing no signs that the end is near. (MTV has options on all of them for one more season.) "I hope [there is a Season 6] — I would miss this place," says Pauly. "I like to be here every summer." Seconds Salsano, "If I had it my way, I'd go to Seaside Heights every summer until I die. As long as people keep watching, I can't imagine everyone not going."

Jersey Shore airs Thursdays at 10/9c on MTV.

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