. So we as an audience were meant to ask two pertinent questions: What does it say about the couple that they chose to do it on television, and what does it say about us that we chose to watch it? Both speak to the Warholian nature of reality television, in which people are famous simply for being on television and then ascend or descend rapidly based on a series of fickle parameters that change as quickly as a baby’s diaper.
Looking at the first question: it’s clear that the show both provided endless amount of financial and cultural opportunities for the children. Neither Jon nor Kate ever denied this, even when times were nominally better for the couple. But the show’s success provided SO much that leaving was essentially a non-option. As such, they were quickly trapped in the trappings of the show, leaving a return to a single-income, coupon clipping family essentially impossible.
Had the two announced off-camera they were getting separated, yearning to see if a return to non-camera life might provide the context in which to reestablish the remains of a ten-year marriage, I doubt anyone outside of the TLC executive board would have cared. People would have applauded the decision, and welcomed the show back were there signs of a renewal of a strong core inside the oversized family. But for reasons most of us will never fully understand, they aired the laundry on air, TLC gussied it up as a “Very Special Episode,” and we’re at home left with the impression that living off-camera is simply not feasible for this couple.
But if two people get divorced on television, and nobody watches, does it make a sound? We’ll never know, because clearly millions watch this show. I’m writing a recap of it, and you’re reading it. In the past, it’s been fun to mock the media-addicted nature of Kate and the confused narcissism of Jon. Reality stars exist as a litmus test for the audience: we either loathe them because they inherit what we feel is rightfully ours, or delight in them as we revel in our superiority compared to the nitwits on the boob tube. But episodes such as this, in which a “Pulp Fiction”-esque structure constantly weaves between benignly happy days gone past and crushingly unsure days yet to come into a surreal soup that reflects the image on the television back onto the viewer.
What’s absent from this recap so far is the glue that binds the couple and the viewing public together: the eight kids, once the source of much joy for both parties but now omnipresent yet all-but-invisible. Both Jon and Kate repeatedly and independently mention how they’ve done everything they have for the kids, but lurking beneath both was this subtle insinuation that having those eight kids forced their hands into doing the show in the first place.
You can argue until you’re blue in the face about the mindset that went into the multiple fertilization treatments that yielded their bounty, but I defy anyone in this pop-culture soaked landscape to claim they would pass up the chance to allow a television crew to enter their 10-person family in the off-chance paying the mortgage would no longer be a flop-sweat filled experience. With the hand dealt them, the two made a deal with the devil, the same deal the majority of reality stars make. Some end up on dating shows, peddling roses and/or Flavor Flav. Some end up on approximately 78 different versions of “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge.” And some get so caught up in life on-air that there’s little to no oxygen for them when the cameras turn off.
And when will they turn off? Not anytime soon, apparently. Neither is walking away from the public life. Because they can’t. It is literally impossible, from some combination of fiscal, legal, and moral obligations. So we’ll continue to watch the kids leave their broken home to go play in a crooked one. Or, we can choose to do what Jon and Kate cannot: leave the show behind.
Which way are you going to go?
Ryan writes about TV and popular culture over at Boob Tube Dude.