Jon and Kate and real reality

For the last couple of weeks, the faces of Jon and Kate Gosselin have been everywhere -- peering out from tabloid covers, flashed on celebrity gossip shows, picked apart by blogs. Monday night, though, their TLC reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8" returns for a fifth season, and the couple will reveal which face they’d like the world to see and to judge them by.

(Kate’s hair, of course, transcends medium.)

Last weekend the couple filmed segments for the premiere at their Wernersville, Pa., home in which they’ll address the swirl of scandal surrounding them: Jon’s late-night carousing and his alleged affair with a schoolteacher, and Kate’s alleged affair with her bodyguard. For the first time, the show won’t merely focus on how this couple manage parenting but also how they manage being a couple in real time.

But the fact that this needed to be done, with TLC cameras sweeping in to join the paparazzi cameras already planted in Pennsylvania, only highlights the schism between the events shown on reality shows and actual, verifiable truth. It’s been some time since producers of reality programming pretended to absolute reality in their presentation, but the Jon and Kate trauma highlights the difficulties created when people must exist in two spaces at once: actual day-to-day life, and filmed-and-edited slices thereof.


In the early days of reality TV, when shows like “The Real World” were filmed months before airing, this was a purely theoretical concern. But now, especially on shows that aspire to docu-style treatment, moving in slightly time-delayed lock step with its subjects, the ascent of characters from nobody citizens to paparazzi targets has become problematic not just for the privacy of those involved but also for the sanctity of narrative.

Take “The Hills,” maneuvering in tight space at the outer limits of this phenomenon. On the show, Lauren, Heidi, Audrina and the rest live in a blissful bubble -- dining at outdoor cafes unperturbed, free to drink and dance their nights away in what amounts to essentially staged events, video versions of the classic photo op. But of course, one look at the tabloids reveals a whole other side of their lives, aspects that the cameras of “The Hills” choose not to shoot or are prevented from so doing.

When the spaces collide, dissonance runs highest. On the show, Spencer and Heidi were properly engaged only in last week’s episode, but in real life they were married late last month, an event that will be the center of this season’s finale, airing next Sunday. Wondering if Lauren showed up? A picture of her walking out of the church could be found in any tabloid.

While discussing joining the cast of “The Hills” -- she’ll appear in the season finale, at the Speidi wedding -- Kristin Cavallari (late of “Laguna Beach”) mentioned her newly acquired acting skills, as if that were what starring on the show demanded. (Far preferable are the expressions of emptiness on Stephanie’s face that no coach could teach; same with Lo’s cherished disdain.)

Kristin also nodded to the show’s fundamental confusion: "[Lauren] has a boyfriend so she’s not dating on the show. I’m very open to dating and finding a guy.” Lauren has reportedly been dating actor Kyle Howard (“My Boys”) for almost a year, but he’s never appeared on the show, nor is he ever mentioned.

As a result, a significant part of Lauren’s life remains opaque, making the prospect of Lauren’s unfilmed world even more tantalizing. Even “Family Guy” grappled with the subject this month, presenting her as a misunderstood closet genius, an intellectual powerhouse too bright even for Brian, the sophisticate dog. A stretch, perhaps, but certainly Lauren must spend at least the occasional day without cameras lamenting the days spent with them, not that you’d ever know.

Jon and Kate too must be learning how to juggle multiple selves. The worst of the chatter broke while Kate was on tour for her new book, “Eight Little Faces: A Mom’s Journey,” creating a situation with at least three separate Kates: the beaming mother captured in her book; the Kate of the show, sometimes bitter but always committed; and the human Kate, weathering the maelstrom unfolding around her.

For the last four seasons, “Jon & Kate Plus 8" has centered mostly around the couple’s home life and the oddities involved with raising so many children. Their marriage was discussed but only in this context and, it should be said, refreshingly so. Jon and Kate have always seemed like a genuine couple, both in their affection for each other as well as their antipathy.

In statements, TLC has affirmed its commitment to airing a full season of 40 episodes -- some have been filmed already, and the rest are slated to be filmed in the coming months. It’s unclear if those episodes will be, essentially, instant documentaries that will allude to the recent (and possibly ongoing) troubles or, having touched on the matter in the premiere, the show will turn a blind eye to the present and return to the slice of life that excludes the gossip and its hounds.

If everyone else is still watching, though, they may have no choice.