I was expecting something else. I don’t follow the tabloids or even much celebrity gossip any more, but I’d inescapably gathered — as a person with a computer and a television — that Jon and Kate Gosselin, the parents of eight children (including sextuplets) and stars of their own reality show were having difficulties in their marriage. I thought it was, perhaps, fodder to increase viewership for the show, which I’d planned to review as a throwaway piece for shits and giggles. As it turns out, it’s a lot more difficult to make fun of “Jon & Kate Plus 8” than I thought it’d be. The disintegration of their marriage is real. It’d be impossible to fake what’s going on onscreen, and if a producer wanted to create marital drama, it’d be more about angry outbursts and constant bickering. But angry outburst and constant bickering characterized the first four seasons of the show, and that’s when their marriage was still a happy one. Now, it’s passive aggressiveness, it’s avoidance, it’s inability to confront one another, and it’s icy tension, all of which make for an unsettlingly real watching experience, which is not what I was expecting from a show on TLC.
Before watching the fifth season premiere of “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” I had a passing familiarity with the show. Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate occasionally turned it on late at night while I was reading (she’s far more compelled by “18 Kids and Counting”), and I’d gathered the gist of Jon and Kate’s marital dynamic (which is far more interesting than the fact they have eight children). Kate is a harsh, acid-tongued, argumentative wife and mother, while Jon is the passive, put-upon, sometimes absent-minded, husband who follows his wife’s orders, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. It’s a familiar relationship dynamic — I see it in many of my friends’ marriages. The wife almost always comes out on top — either the husband relents, or he puts up a huge, pride-fueled argument, and then he relents. Fair enough, as long as it’s happening behind closed doors and away from friends, family, and the public at large, who can go on believing that the dynamic is a more even one. For a lot of men, I think it’s an almost comfortable role, as it allows them to abrogate a small bit of responsibility, especially when it comes to parenting. Some Dads are content to argue spitefully that they’d love to switch places with their wives and be the primary caregiver, but other fathers who share — or even do the majority of the parenting — realize that, no matter how much they love their children, being responsible for keeping them fed, well-slept, properly bathed, preoccupied most of the day is more daunting than almost any 9-5 job, even if it more rewarding.
Perception also plays a huge role. And I think that — regardless of whether Jon slept with the woman he’s been alleged to have slept with (and from his body language on the show, it’s obvious he did something wrong ) after four years of public emasculation and two years of full-time Daddy duty (he “quit” his job two seasons ago to take care of the kids full time) I suspect that Jon wanted to reclaim some of his pride, assert some independence, and stop spending his life (badly) taking orders. He’s not entirely unsympathetic, but if Jon and Kate really wanted to do what was best for their children — which is what they spend the majority of the premiere arguing — then they would’ve called off the fucking show already.
But they haven’t, and in turn, we’re privy to the slow, but obvious, dissolution of their marriage. And it’s unpleasantly uncomfortable. It’s not the train wreck I couldn’t look away from I was anticipating — it’s a train wreck I didn’t take any joy in watching. In fact, to make that discomfort more immediate, this season premiere does something that I don’t think that past seasons have done (and I may be wrong): It intercuts footage the producers caught months ago with testimonials that are closer to present day, which allows the couple to comment on what’s going on in their marriage today while watching it come apart months ago. Not that we’d need the testimonials to tell us that — it’s painfully clear.
The premiere focuses on the 5th birthday party of the sextuplets, but again it’s not really about the “8.” It’s about Jon and Kate, who I don’t think were particularly good parents before the marital problems. But who am I to say what kind of parent I’d be if I had eight children, particularly considering that they’re being judged on edited footage. But from what I can gather, Kate is frequently traveling to support her book, while Jon is present but largely absent. His mind is elsewhere. At the job he no longer has, or in a future that doesn’t involve television cameras. Or in a place where he thinks he’s too goddamn good to spend his life looking after the kids. And yet both consistently complain about the demands of being a parent, and like a lot of husbands and wives, seem to be in a series’ long argument on who sacrifices the most for their children. The answer: The children, who have to sacrifice their childhoods to television cameras and, now, the constant presence of paparazzi, who follow them everywhere they go and capture every balloon they lose to the sky, while their parents benefit in the form of millions of dollars and round-the-clock babysitters who do a lot of the hard work off camera.
Anyway, the kids are cute and somehow seem to live a relatively normal existence. But then again, five-year-olds don’t expect a lot: A few bubbles, some bouncy stuff, and a birthday cake, all of which Jon and Kate provide with the help of TLC producers, no doubt. What’s more troubling, however, is the fact that Jon and Kate barely share two words between each other at the birthday party. Whatever went down between the two clearly went down before the show taped, and neither Jon nor Kate really bother to shine it on for the cameras. But in addition to the tension, there’s a certain wistfulness to the proceedings. Despite what they’re putting their children through, clearly they love them, which makes the occasional hug or tender moment between parent and child stomach churning because you know what’s going through their heads: This may be the last birthday party we may all spend together. It’s palpable. And sad enough that it made me — and I expect much of the audience — feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. We shouldn’t be watching it, and for God’s sake, they shouldn’t be offering it up for the cameras.
But that’s reality TV. Put aside the tabloid associations, and it’s sociologically compelling. The fame and attention reality TV brings might have felt strangely alluring four seasons ago. However, as opposed to the always smiley and uncomplicated marriage on “18 Kids and Counting,” this show is beginning to reveal the long-term consequences that cameras can have on a marriage. “Jon and Kate Plus 8” is what Josh Harris, the Internet pioneer documented in Quiet: We Live in Public, predicted: No relationship can survive the kind of constant scrutiny only a video camera can provide. And there’s not a lot of entertainment value in watching it. Just anguish.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.