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Jon & Kate Plus 8: This Would Be the "For Worse" Part

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Octomom’s looking more and more functional every day, isn’t she?

Jon & Kate Plus 8 returned last night for an oversized season 5 opener, and the first show in the series since charges about the couple’s marriage exploded in the tabloids: first, that Jon Gosselin had strayed with a teacher (after earlier partying with coed “friends”), then that Kate was unwholesomely linked with a bodyguard. Which meant that the friction between the parents of 8, which had been a grating/amusing subtext to the megafamily reality show before, was now uncomfortably front and center. 

Well, kind of. What TLC served up last night was a bizarre, jarring, excruciating and sad mishmash of what looked like two separate episodes spliced together. There was a (relatively) normal Jon & Kate episode, in which Kate corralled the troops to organize a fifth birthday party for the sextuplets—albeit under pursuit by paparazzi. Then there was what looked like a Barbara Walters special, as producers interviewed the two—mostly separately, as they appeared in most of the episode, about the upheaval in their family / media corporation. 

And good Lord, was it awful. 

My guess here is that TLC—and I’m guessing the Gosselins—would rather not have acknowledged the tabloid stories directly on the show. (I realize that the publicity is good for the network’s ratings, but it’s clearly snowballed beyond the it’s-all-good-publicity stage to become a controversy that threatens the show—and, oh, yeah, maybe a marriage.) But once the family had been splashed on every magazine cover at your grocery checkout, it was clear that ignoring it was not an option.

So they seem to have taken the show already in the can—which would have alluded to the media storm only vaguely—and intercut it with a vague yet horrible confessional from the two parents. 

As for that part: where to start? With Jon’s moaning that he and his wife had “not signed up for public scrutiny”? (I’m guessing the contract mentioned somewhere that a freaking TV show was involved.) With Kate’s indignity at being criticized for traveling for her “job,” namely, national appearances to publicize her rearing of the eight kids who are home with Jon? With his passive denial of responsibility, or with her aggressive foisting off of it? 

It’s clear what Jon & Kate has become now: It’s The Hills for old people. Like MTV’s reality show, it’s less a TV series than a media environment, where the broadcast itself is only the starting point. You need to follow the coverage in the tabs and on the gossip shows in order to get the full storyline and the context. 

Watching the confessional interviews themselves last night—with all those publicist-managed phrases about “my choices” and “this situation”—would have been near-unintelligible to someone who hadn’t followed any of the wider media coverage of the show. (And what does it say when Kate Gosselin is willing to be more forthcoming with People magazine than with the producers of her own TV show?)

The hitch, however, is that on The Hills no one gets hurt but the blonde little hamsters whirring around on the fame wheel. Once kids are involved, it gets less cute. The episode kept switching to the adorable kids—shown with Mom or Dad but generally not both—singing Happy Birthday and eating cake while their parents debated how they could stay married so as to maintain the family business. Their tableau of forced domestic bliss—with the parents mostly either separate or at opposite ends of the picnic table—gave the usually sweet scenes with the children the tone of a horror movie: we know what’s lurking in the background, even if they don’t. Hearing Jon talk about his alleged dalliances to the camera, then sing The Wiggles’ “Fruit Salad” to his kids, was just chilling. 

The proceedings concluded with Jon & Kate being asked if they would stay together. They didn’t have an answer, but the subtext would seem to be that they’re at least going to stick together on the show, come hell or high water. Kate said that she does everything she does “for the kids”; Jon noted that he’d quit his job to be a stay-at-home TV dad. Message: this show is a cash cow, it belongs to our family, and even if we have to keep it up as a sham partnership as “friends,” it’s staying on. Please keep watching, however ghastly it is, because this puts food in our innocent kids’ mouths. 

If I had to guess, I would bet TLC did this special episode hoping it would be sufficient, and the subsequent episodes will try to go back to the usual “Jon & Kate take the kids shoe shopping!” structure. Which will now be just incredibly awkward, particularly because the two parents have now made the viewers not just complicit in their family’s troubles but on the hook for supporting their children. 

Those viewers might be forgiven for asking whether the Gosselins haven’t stashed enough cash by now to take some time off—”for the kids”—and get their crap together before they put their family on TV again. (By the way, as the father of two kids roughly the same age as theirs—albeit just two of them—I do not for a minute buy the whole “the kids aren’t really aware of it yet” line. Kids that age are incredibly aware.) 

And this, of course, is where a TV critic might then turn it around on the viewers, and ask them why they’ve enabled this whole situation by watching a family fall apart—a la the Louds of PBS’s An American Family in 1973—for entertainment. Except that this is not entertaining. It’s just sad.