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Jon & Kate Plus 8 - "Renovations and Vacations"/"Camping Out"

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I realize that we’ve all pretty much moved on to gossiping about Jon and Kate Gosselin or making fun of how Kate emasculates Jon while Jon went from husband to douchebag in, like, a millisecond once that separation was announced, but I still find the story of Jon & Kate Plus 8 incredibly sad. I think that’s because the story hits so many of the traditional American story archetypes. It’s about a husband and wife who got absolutely everything they ever wanted and then realized that it was nothing like what they were expecting. It’s about two people who couldn’t find happiness through buying it. It’s about the strain put on a family when you try to serve both God and mammon. Imagine what Orson Welles could have done with this! Or F. Scott Fitzgerald! You get the point.

Mostly, though, now that the series is back after its long, self-imposed hiatus (a hiatus taken to deal with the fallout from the Gosselins’ separation, just in case you never stand in supermarket checkout aisles), it’s a show about two people trying to deal with the grief caused by their marriage dissolving through product placement. Though the show deals with the elephant in the room right at the top of tonight’s first episode and there are sporadic mentions of it throughout, the series mostly chooses to let this all play out as an undercurrent that’s barely commented on here. When one of the sextuplets (and, honestly, I can’t tell them apart, and I’ve always thought the twins were way more interesting anyway) tells her mom that dad knows everything about building a tent, Kate says, “Yeah, well, he’s not here,” and the barely controlled bitterness in her voice is about as close as the show gets to stepping up to the abyss of whatever consumed the Gosselins and replaced them with the TV stars they’ve become.

Also, the show has evolved into a show about how two people who were once normal people deal with the trappings of fame, most notably, the paparazzi. I suspect there’s a lot more the show could do in this regard, but then it might have to implicate itself in the dissolution of the marriage, and that would simply be unacceptable to TLC and/or the producers. So, instead, we get these occasional vignettes in the middle of the “This big family is just like my family only much, much larger” shenanigans to reflect on how much it sucks to have your vacation to the beach interrupted by photographers who set up shop and take pictures of you. Jon & Kate initially rose to popularity on the image of Kate as some sort of super mom who had the parenting answers for every conundrum, but her practical advice to dealing with photographers (just ignore them and live your life!) is all well and good until you consider how utterly removed it is from what the show purported to be in the first place.

The two episodes focus on some fairly typical family-type adventures. The first deals with renovating the Gosselins’ kitchen and Kate’s trip with the kids to the beach (where photographs of her in a red bikini turned up on the cover of every single tabloid, seemingly). The second involves Kate trying to give the kids what they want by offering them a camping trip in the backyard. The series wants to have it both ways. It owes the huge ratings success it’s had this summer (including several broadcasts that are among the highest-rated non-sports cable broadcasts of all time) to the tabloid buzz surrounding the central marriage, but the series built its initial success on simple, homespun tales of a large family doing normal things. So while the episodes pursue the latter, they tend to get caught up in the moments when the absence of Jon in the presence of Kate and the kids’ lives is particularly egregious, the camera hovering on these moments for just a second too long, as if to say, “Did you see it? Did you?”

It feels a little easy to pick on the show for its copious amounts of product placement at this point, but it’s still there and still one of the biggest problems with the series (and, indeed, with the whole “filming an unusual family in the wild” genre). When the camera heads into a divebomb of a zoom to check out some Coleman brand merchandise on the family’s camping extravaganza as Kate natters on about how great it is to be having family camping fun, it feels somehow even more damning of a move than it did before the separation. “You sold your souls!” the Coleman brand illumination sticks may as well stand up and chorus. “And now what do you have? Two shoddily set-up tents and a house of crushed dreams! Buy Coleman!”

The series is also attempting to pick out how the kids are reacting to the separation without, y’know, coming right out and asking about it, which makes it somehow even worse than if they actually did just sit down and ask the kids what they thought about the whole mess (though, to be fair, 5-year-olds are not typically terribly coherent on the subject of divorce). After much of the first half of episode two was given over to Kate’s efforts to set up a tent (complete with her kids complaining about how daddy does it better), the producer asked the twins, “How was mommy at building a tent?” which led to the response, “She did a terrible job. I was afraid it was going to collapse in the middle of the night.” The kids’ barely restrained hostility about how awful Kate was at tent-building (the girl sextuplets said it was because she was a girl – yay, gender roles!) could be sort of rubber-neck amusing, I guess, or insightful if this were actually trying to be a reality show about divorce, but like everything else on this show, it’s played for cutesy comedy.

At this point, I think there’s no way that Jon & Kate can continue. And that's too bad because it used to be the best of the genre it pioneered, not terrific or anything, but a sweet little journey into what it would be like to have eight kids. The first time I saw the show was thanks to a friend who taped every episode and salivated over how much planning anything the Gosselins did required, just how mean Kate was to her husband, just how cute the kids could be. It was a show about two people who really did think love could conquer all until they realized that love was no match for those twin corrupting pillars of money and fame. When you watch older episodes of the show or the home video footage of the Gosselins before they had kids, you can sort of catch glimpses of the people who were subsumed into media personas, and that’s perhaps the saddest thing of all. I was only a casual and occasional observer of the Gosselin family before the summer that saw all of America pulling up their chairs to sit at the dinner table with them and listen in, but now I have that sickening pit in my stomach, the wish that I’d never peeked in in the first place.

Grade: D

Stray observations:

  • That said, I’m totally down with 18 and Counting. I don’t watch it regularly (or all that often), but I love how blithely the Duggars will drop end times references and shit while TLC frantically tries to edit around them.
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