Keeping Tabs on John & Kate

Contrary to what Neil Sedaka would have you believe, breaking up is one of the easiest things in the world to do, provided you don’t have to go through it on national TV. Last week, fans of TLC’s unscripted hit Jon & Kate Plus 8 were shocked- — shocked! — to discover that the titular couple had filed for divorce after a decade of a marriage that, to the dispassionate observer, seemed to be no more exasperating or contentious than any other union, but for the head-clutching logistics that come with having to care for a hyperkinetic gaggle of eight children.
For all the criticism that’s been levied at the Gosselins — and they’re easy targets: The eye-rolling, tongue-clucking Kate runs the home with the grim efficiency of a U-boat captain and treats her mopey husband like he’s a moderately intelligent cocker spaniel — if you take the kids out of the equation, there’s nothing particularly special about either of them. And yet the unrelenting tide of tabloid headlines (“Mommy, You Are Mean!,” “Inside Jon’s Prison”) hinted at deprivation and neglect and illicit sex, which in turn helped lure some 10.7 million viewers to the June 22 revelation episode.

Since allegations about Jon Gosselin’s indiscretions first came to light in April, the pair have appeared on the cover of no less than 45 weekly magazines. It’s a remarkable feat, given that the show averaged around 2.5 million viewers for TLC before everything started to fall apart.
What’s particularly interesting about the J&K+8 phenomenon is that it inverts almost every received notion about convergence. Rather than the primary text, the show itself has become almost a sidebar to all the other offline media that surround it, which makes for spiky, but unsustainable ratings. (Three weeks after the premiere, which drew 9.8 million gawkers, the June 15 show drew 2.92 million viewers, closer to its norm.)
As much as TV executives love to pump up the synergistic possibilities inherent in metastatic narrative, it’s nearly impossible for TLC to channel any of the “real world” elements that feed into the show. In other words, as the offline media (tabloids, blogs, Tweets, etc.) generate more heat, the shows begin to draw back from the reality that was supposed to inform it in the first place, to the point where the principals only make vague allusions to the events that are driving the narrative.
Last week, after an introductory teaser about the status of the couple’s marriage, viewers sat through a half-hour subplot about the construction of four ornate playhouses on the grounds of Chez Gosselin. While Jon and Kate bickered about logistics, the kids waited for construction to begin, and for a while, it seemed as if the show’s producers had somehow neglected to address the issue.

(As is so often the case with J&K+8, last week’s episode put a premium on product placement, and this latest example was a humdinger. The Kids Crooked House team designs its playhouses to appear almost cartoonishly dilapidated from the outside; in a sense, the finished products look like the literal evocation of the term “broken home.”)

Once the houses were standing, the storyline shifted back to the primary conflict, but again, any explicit references to the root cause of the unrest were seemingly left on the cutting-room floor.

“Kate and I have decided to separate,” Jon said in the show’s penultimate segment — weak beer in the wake of news that they had filed for divorce just hours before the episode aired. For all the frenzied tabloid buildup, the show retained its familiar dynamic, with Kate donning the martyr’s robes (“Jon has a lot of anger toward me, and I would love to discuss it with him, but he won’t talk to me”) while Jon experienced a sudden jolt of self-awareness (“I was too passive”), before punching the emotional tetherball back on Kate’s side of the pole (“I finally stood up on my own two feet, and I’m proud of myself”).