Just for kicks, just for a moment, dare to imagine a world where you, and more importantly I, have never had Jon and Kate Gosselin thrust upon the consciousness when merely trying to escape the A&P. Appraise the couple—husband-and-wife stars of the reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8 (TLC, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET)—with fresh eyes. She is a moaning 34-year-old harpy with highlights as wide as mountain-bike tires sporting an asymmetrical haircut suggestive of a wounded stork. He is a sullen 32-year-old layabout whose skate-punk sideburns and gelled forelocks signal boring bad news. And, on the show, both struggle to act half their age.
The Gosselins’ claim to fame rests on the eight backs of their children, 8-year-old twin daughters and 5-year-old sextuplets. The children are passably cute, if not half as adorable as you might hope of youths robbed of some measure of innocence for the sake of a low-budget basic-cable show. They are, however, recognizably human, which, given their parentage, is a marvel on the order of the virgin birth.
In its first three seasons, Jon & Kate was occasionally neat in diagramming the logistics of a hectic family life, octuple naptime and such. The kids made faces, and the score toodled insipidly along, and the time passed with only the occasional sense of horror at seeing a brood raised to wear T-shirts reading, “Oprah Here We Come.” It was easy to ignore the nagging sensation that they’d been doomed to lives of empty celebrity. Or to convince yourself that 15 minutes of fame, divided by eight, is scarcely enough time to fill a commercial break.
Then, off-camera (in real life, you might say, if the couple, living on camera, hadn’t perverted life more completely than most reality-TV stars), Jon went and picked up a chick on the side. One necessity for successfully conducting a discreet affair is a prepaid cell phone. Another is a talent for craftiness, and Jon has yet to demonstrate a capacity for cunning that would allow him to beat his kids at Connect Four. Kate, meanwhile, continued to lay off the charm—and it’s never a good omen when Us Weekly mocks you for pleading for privacy into a live mic.
All this was a gift to tabloid readers suffering Angelina fatigue and was—as the publicity will sooner or later sting the children—a conundrum for committed pro-choice types. If you’ve decided that other people’s reproductive systems are none of your business, then you’ve got to be consistent, and there’s an intellectual dishonesty in reflecting that the Gosselins should have been neutered before it came to this.
Last night, Jon & Kate celebrated its 100th episode, and TLC, enjoying unprecedented ratings, continued to milk the couple’s marital strife as if it were a Holstein. “Every family has good times and bad,” teased the promo, coy and annoying. “But there’s nothing like a major milestone to bring everyone together.” The celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse showed up at the Gosselins’ house, where he was immediately engulfed in a cloud of misery. He must have agreed to make them dinner before this fiasco went down. Me, I would have dumped a gross of fish sticks on the doorstep, rung the bell, and scrammed, but Emeril is a pro, and he went ahead and slapped together a casserole, even mustering the will to whimper out a “Bam!” or two on request.
While the children prepared to play with their food, the “adults” sniped and steamed. Jon fairly licked his chops in admiring the way Emeril usurped Kate’s authority: “He, like, pushed her out of way and did his thing.” Kate taunted Jon for his incompetence, culinary and otherwise. The animosity was so thick it made your shoulders tight. It was as if you were girding yourself for a Cassavetes-level showdown with your own spouse. But with no release in sight—no way are Jon and Kate having it out before July sweeps—the tension was wretched, heightening the sadness of the scene. At least when George and Martha invite guests over in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, they have the decency to offer a catharsis. Jon and Kate cut decency out of the picture a while ago. “How’s it going over here,” she sneered at him last night as he shredded cheese, exulting in his distaste at performing a chore. “De-grating,” he punned. Nobody laughed.