Listening to Kate Gosselin stutter and sniff her way through her recent chats with "Today's" Meredith Vieira, it was hard to keep a straight face. Kate doesn't blame the decision to participate in TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8" for the disintegration of her marriage; it probably would have happened anyway.
Really? Your husband would have left you for a Star reporter and/or the daughter of the plastic surgeon who gave you a tummy tuck (free, because it was filmed), even if you had just remained some obscure church-going Pennsylvania family with a bunch of kids?
Vieira, meanwhile, nodded, as if the answer made perfect sense, and moved on to other matters. Of which there were plenty, because even as Kate and Jon and Jon's girlfriends saturated the entertainment media, Fox announced a two-hour special on Nadya Suleman titled "Octomom: The Incredible Unseen Footage." Promising, as it does, to illuminate the many pressures and anxieties that accompany the birth of octuplets into a family that already included six young children, Fox should include the following warning label: "BEING THE SUBJECT OF A TELEVISION SHOW IS DANGEROUS TO YOUR FAMILY'S HEALTH."
It won't, of course, because we are in the midst of a crisis of either public health or education. There is nothing in the history of television to suggest that being part of it makes your personal life any easier and plenty to suggest otherwise. Yet people continue to hand over the keys to their homes to camera crews. Are they insane or just not paying attention?
Jon and Kate are just the latest in a long line of people who somehow thought they were special enough to overcome the deleterious forces of reality fame. "The Bachelor" is a public-break-up machine. One of the "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" has had her drug-dealing and kidnapping-charges past revealed. Richard Hatch, the first "Survivor" winner, did time.
There's no point in even mentioning the Loud family, who famously attempted the Welcome Camera Crew experiment via "An American Family" in 1971. The parents decided to divorce mid-show, then came together more than 30 years later for "A Death in An American Family," which chronicled the decline of eldest son Lance, who died of complications arising from crystal meth addiction and HIV.
But Americans are so proudly determined to ignore the teachings of history that they even disbelieve Larry David when he says a "Seinfeld" reunion is a bad idea. We live in a world where we excoriate the trappings of ambition and fame in films such as "The Devil Wears Prada" and shows like "Entourage" while relentlessly pursuing them in real life. If nothing else, Jon and Kate have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Americans can hold two opposing thoughts in their heads at the same time, which is, of course, an indication of either genius or insanity.
How else to explain Kate Gosselin's ability to say things like "it would have happened anyway," or that she and Jon are simply two people with very different goals, and apparently believe them. Never mind that those goals, which include a lot of face time with interviewers, seem virtually identical. Because whether or not the Gosselins began as an ordinary couple coping with a rather extraordinary family, they have become entertainers, and we all know how hard that life is on marriage.
Even the professionals have a tough time sticking it out -- Brad Pitt went on "Today" to pitch his new film and philanthropic efforts, but what everyone really wanted to know was how he and Angie were doing. (According to Pitt, just fine.) Ryan O'Neal says he almost made a pass at his own daughter minutes after sliding Farrah's coffin into the hearse. Why would a couple of rank amateurs think a camera crew was the answer to the universal work/family struggle so many families face?
Looking back, it's easy to see that "Jon and Kate" was a mistake from the very beginning. Not for the ratings, not for TLC, not for the bottom line, which enriched the bank accounts of many people, including the Gosselins. Just for the marriage.
The whole draw of the show, besides the swarm of adorable kids, was how "real" the two seemed together. "Real" meaning that Kate was perennially tightly wound, conflicted as a stay-at-home mom and exasperated. For his part, Jon kept it "real" by shaking his head and smiling, content in the knowledge that because he participated more in his children's lives than most men of the previous generation, it was all good.
Sound familiar? Of course it did, that's why people watched. We were fascinated by the couple's ability to not only control an emerging nation of toddlers while mirroring many of our own feelings, but also their decision to break the cardinal rule of marriage: Don't Criticize Your Spouse In Public.
It worked for about a season, when Kate still looked blotchy and exhausted, when her eyebrows were still natural and her belly pooched a bit over her pants and Jon had that scraggly beard and seemed to think that the show was just another one of his wife's crazy plans, like having all these darn babies.
Then Kate got a cuter haircut, got the brows waxed, and tightened her abs, Jon's beard came off and they were celebrities, their talent being their ability to survive their own lives, which had become increasingly complicated by the fact that their lives were now a television show.
At this point, "Jon and Kate" was set to self-destruct; it was essentially a race against time.
Now that the marriage has imploded, the question becomes how real do we honestly like our reality TV? Will our interest in the Gosselins founder now that they have become more ordinary? Cheating husbands are a dime a dozen at the checkout stand, and he's not even that cute.
The ratings for Suleman's show should offer a good indication. There is nothing to be learned from the Suleman story, no connection to be made with average parents. She is, mercifully, an anomaly, tempted, perhaps, by the attention society increasingly pays to large number of multiples, but certainly responsible for her own actions, an easy person to judge from afar, to pity or vilify as the mood strikes us. But surely this special is a mistake.
It is all too easy for us to imagine the tensions and anxiety her situation creates, to do the math and realize that Suleman and her children have no chance of surviving except through the kindness of strangers. But that aid rarely comes without lethally honed strings of television attached; just ask the Gosselins.