It's been six years since Kate Gosselin and her ex-husband and the kids got their first taste of reality TV fame, thanks to a Discovery Health special with the bland title Surviving Sextuplets and Twins. Tonight, Big Mama drew the curtain down on her fifteen minutes, with the final episode of Kate Plus 8, the series that was originally Jon & Kate Plus 8 when it premiered in the spring of 2007. Somewhere in there, the couple split up, amid tabloid reports that had Jon slutting around with the daughter of Kate's plastic surgeon, because it's a small world after all. I don't know how typical I am in that I'd never heard of Jon and Kate before the tabloid stories and never watched their show until the unavoidable Very Special Episode where they discussed the dissolution of their marriage. It's always a little perplexing to discover that a pop culture phenomenon has been going on right under your nose without your ever noticing it. But I like to think that in the two years since, I've heard more than enough about Kate, in particular, to more than make up for it.
The final episode of Kate Plus 8 was part clip show, part retrospective interview in which Kate tried to help the viewers and herself come to an understanding of the mystery that is Kate Gosslein. Who is she, and what is her appeal, and what does her fame mean? This is a tricky, potentially embarrassing area to be poking around in: does anybody really have the stomach to find out to what exact degree the cast of Jersey Shore, say, is on the joke? Kate isn't stupid, and the big answer about how well she understands the nature of her own fame is that she sort of gets it. She is not unaware that half a dozen years of screaming at her kids on TV have turned her into America's gorgon. And she makes a pretty decent case for why, knowing what she does about herself and the way that reality TV is made, she can live with herself in spite of this.
"Sometimes," she says, "over, you know, two days of shooting for one episode, and I have three crabby mommy moments, well, guaranteed, you're gonna see 'em all, in a twenty-two minute show." You also get a sense of what kind of things she's read about herself when she recalls a moment, filmed for the show and broadcast in millions of living room, when she wouldn't let one of the little boys have a cupcake for dessert because he hadn't eaten his dinner, and says, "I can say he's not scarred." I myself find it hard not to be sympathetic to Kate on this one, especially when we see an old clip of her repeatedly telling her kids to stop eating, but the cloth-eared little buggers simply won't listen, until she repeats her polite request in a voice that could raise Captain Beefheart from the dead. Kate herself says that a big part of the appeal of the show, from its earliest days, was that "we had droves of tiny kids." She chooses not to spell out that watching somebody try to corral eight tiny kids on TV is like watching Jeopardy! When you're just watching it in your living room, it seems easy to have all the answers.
Kate doesn't get too far into the appeal that her relationship with Jon may have had for viewers, but luckily, Steve Neild, the silver-fox head of her security team also gets to sit a spell in the interview chair, and he is less circumspect on the subject, possibly as a reward to the interviewer for not asking him about the tabloid covers that he and Kate graced together. "I honestly think," he says, "couples would sit down on the couch, and the wife would turn to the husband and say, 'Look, darling, see, I'm nowhere near as bad as that,' and the husband would turn to the wife and say, 'Hey, look, darling, I'm nowhere near as useless as that.'"
One reason the series was doomed after the marriage ended was that the dynamic at the center of the show was missing, and without it, it became that much harder to pretend that this was still a show about regular folks struggling to support a surreally large family. By cutting a deal with a TV network to turn them into reality stars in order to secure an income and, later, a new house for their family, the Gosselins were just updating a script that goes back to at least the public furor over the Dionne quintuplets in the 1930s. The viewers who sent in donations didn't think of the Gosselins as celebrities; you don't worry that a TV celebrity needs your fifteen dollars to put towards a shoe fund for the baby. But with Jon gone, the only people Kate had around to yell at were her employees. In the next to last episode, she drove off Ashley, her longtime babysitter. Kate chose to be philosophical about it: "People leave my life. I keep on goin'." She seemed to be trying to make her life sound like a country-western song, but Ashley clearly thought of her as being more like one of those singers who performs at the Met in a big horned helmet: a diva.
Except for some of the clips of her vintage bitching, the finale was longer on the wistful, sweet Kate than the put-upon, smartass bellyacher who was all over the previous episode. That's a shame, because it's Kate the putdown artist who's the reality star; the sincere Kate, the one who feels other people's pain and has aspirations to be glamorous (which led her to crash and burn on Dancing with the Stars) is just the one you put up with, like the acoustic Bruce Springsteen, while waiting patiently for the next appearance by the real thing. Her TV apotheosis was probably not on her own shows but her cameo, with all her kids in tow, on Sarah Palin's Alaska, where her refusal to get on Palin's wavelength and enjoy the wholesome pleasures of camping out in nature's bounty ("This is ridiculous. Why would you pretend to be homeless?… How do you make sandwiches for eight kids on your arm?") made for time-capsule television.
If there's reason to worry about Kate, it has to do with the hints she drops towards the end of the show that she may not be ready to accept it if her fifteen minutes are over, and, worse, hasn't exactly planned for the possibility. Asked by the interviewer for her reaction to the news that the show was being canceled, she says, "Holy cow, I'm unemployed, and I have eight kids to provide for!" Her impulse in a situation like this is to try to make it sound as if it's all about the kids, but she doesn't understand that she sounds slightly deranged as she explains that she has to stay on TV, for the good of the children: "I refuse to pull them out of their house. I refuse to pull them out of their school. So I'd better figure something to do to keep them there… Probably the future holds TV for me. The land of TV and media all make sense to now, so I would love to keep going forward in whatever capacity suits me and my kids, Is this the last time you'll see my kids on TV? Probably not. I know that there's a lot of people out there who genuinely care how each of my kids turn out."
It's the damndest thing, watching someone use the closing moments of her dying show to pitch a new vehicle to anyone who's watching, with a little guilt trip thrown in: My kids have to eat! I really do hope there's some tender-hearted CEO with a cable network to program who can find an excuse to stick her and her brood on the air in some low-traffic time slot where she can't do much harm. Better that than that she should end up standing on a median strip, holding up a handlettered cardboard sign that reads, "WILL YELL AT MY KID TO GET HER FINGER OUT OF HER NOSE, FOR FOOD!"