Table for 12 is my new favorite of TLC’s big-family reality shows. It’s a little weird saying that you have a favorite big-family reality show, because it’s like saying that you like one family better than the others. Well, I’ll say it: I like Table for 12 because I like the Hayes family better than the others.
Of course, when I say I “like” a reality-show family, I know I’m saying I like the TV version of them. Watching the Gosselins on Jon & Kate Plus Eight is increasingly exhausting. Kate has told Ladies’ Home Journal that doing the show is like “the family job,” and God, watching it these days feels like watching someone work—with Kate in the role of the taskmaster and passive-aggressive Jon dragging his feet and watching the clock. I wish they and TLC would simply give themselves a break, but with 4.6 million viewers for the season finale, that’s not going to happen.
I’ve actually grown to like and admire the evangelical-Christian Duggars on 18 Kids and Counting, even though we have little culturally in common and they doubtless would believe that I am going to Hell. I see them like I see the Henricksons on Big Love (the Duggars would probably not take this as a compliment, but if you’ve read my Big Love Watches, you know I mean it as one). Through their homeschooling and avoidance of mainstream pop culture (if you don’t count their media appearances, and, well, their mainstream TV show), they’ve forged a family that’s supportive and functional on its own terms. But their family is too separate and finally hermetic to connect with my experience; I can admire them, but I can’t really identify with them.
But if the Gosselins are like a workplace and the Duggar family like a social project, I see the Hayeses on Table for 12 and just see a family. Betty and Eric seem down to Earth and good-humored, neither self-conscious about the cameras nor trying to make some larger point to the world. They’re just good-naturedly going through the experiences of middle-class parents, times ten (including one child with cerebral palsy)—getting the kids organized and trying to keep them from sneaking doughnuts before they’ve eaten dinner. They may be the least mediagenic of the TLC families, but they seem the most like families I actually know.
Of course, maybe a season or two of basic-cable stardom will condition the normalcy out of them. Anyone else want to admit to watching?