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Critic's Notebook

Yes, TLC, as Duggar scandal shows, life surprises. Shocker? No.

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
Duggar scandal mirrors the dark side of real life. This shouldn't come as surprise to TLC, reality TV viewers

Here we go again.

Millions of Americans are shocked, shocked to learn that the family showcased by a popular reality show is dysfunctional in ways outside the boundaries of the program's chosen and carefully scripted choice of dysfunction.

We are, one more time with feeling, a nation betrayed.

How could the Duggars, the perpetually propagating family at the center of TLC's "19 Kids and Counting," have neglected to inform us that their eldest son, Josh, had inappropriate contact with several of his sisters and a babysitter over a period of months when he was a teen?

For years, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have celebrated their interpretation of family values, with its factory-like logistics, child-labor economy and worrisome 18th century values. For years, they have taken pride in eschewing certain fruits of the modern age, including birth control, notions of female equality and freedom of self-expression. We watched, as if at a historic re-creation, the insistence on modest clothing and "gender appropriate" hairstyles, and the parent-controlled courtships of the elder children.

How on earth were we, the unsuspecting television viewing public, to know that there was a darker side to this American idyll?

Well, we could have paid attention to reality television's recent history, or even the network tagline under which the show appeared.

An initially hypnotic cross between "Cheaper by the Dozen," "Seventh Heaven" and "Hoarders," the then-"17 Kids and Counting" debuted in 2008 as part of TLC's shift toward extreme family programming, something the network branded under "Life Surprises."

And as we all know, more tears are shed over answered brands than unanswered ones.

"Pride goeth before a fall," was one of the biblical phrases not quoted by Ma and Pa Duggar when they took to Fox News on Wednesday night to discuss how they dealt with their teen son's dysfunction. After the Fox interview, two of the daughters came out in support of their brother — they seemed far more upset over the unsealing of court records and the subsequent media uproar than their brother's actions.

Yet no Duggar has thus far suggested that, in light of that media uproar, it might be a good time for the family to stop being on television.

Many, many other people have, though. Show sponsors have pulled out in droves as social media disgust from every side continues to rise. Some decry the Duggars' failure to press charges against their son, while others are outraged over the media's exploitation of the past youthful misbehavior. (Sarah Palin helpfully attempted to shift the one cultural conversation currently not revolving around Lena Dunham back to Lena Dunham, but the all-cap hysteria of her tweet made it easy to resist.)

One hopes TLC is doing some soul-searching. At least two other "Life Surprises" series — "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and the "Toddlers & Tiaras" spinoff "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" — have publicly exploded. Jon and Kate Gosselin began a messy and highly publicized divorce two years after their series debuted, and TLC dropped "Honey Boo Boo" last year after it was revealed that Mama June was dating a convicted pedophile.

But life continually "surprises" in all areas of the reality demographic. Suicide, criminal conviction and divorce have plagued Bravo's "The Real Housewives" franchise. Meanwhile, death and injury have become a legitimate hazard on survival-oriented programming, and keeping up with the woes of television's many teen moms is nearly impossible.

Caitlyn Jenner's triumphant emergence after years of rumor and paparazzi-fueled stalking is one of the few revelations produced from reality programming that actually inspires rather than depresses.

Reality programming, especially that which deals specifically with human interaction (as opposed to some sort of competition), is a work in progress, a thoroughly modern construct built to reflect the culture's constant tension between romanticism and cynicism.

We want self-portraits, but we prefer them Photoshopped. We want to peer into the reality of other family's lives, but we want it to be effortless and entertaining. We want drama and conflict, but keep it light and petty, please. If it turns dark and ugly, we howl with shock and outrage.

Should the Duggars have set themselves up as an example of family life, especially without acknowledging their son's misconduct? No. But for us to watch any reality program at this point under the assumption that what we are seeing is somehow less fictionalized than a scripted drama is absurd.

Any otherwise intelligent society where people exuberantly and repeatedly live-tweet a show in which a group of people compete to sell themselves in marriage are far too dependent on glass accents to throw too many stones.

There are many legitimate life surprises. But that many families have disturbing secrets and that reality show participants are often screwed up are not among them.

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