As “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” comes to what is, for many, a long overdue end on Monday night, this question remains: What did it mean?
For its first four seasons, “Jon & Kate” plugged along as a popular but relatively low-profile cable series, the ardent fans of which argued enthusiastically over Kate's controlling behavior and Jon's maddening passivity, but which the rest of the country paid little attention to.
How quickly have things changed? In November 2008 — barely more than a year ago — an episode aired in which Jon and Kate renewed their wedding vows in Hawaii.
There were tabloid reports of marital problems, and then more tabloid reports. Everything escalated so rapidly between the end of March, when the fourth season finished airing, and the end of May, when the fifth season premiered, that pent-up curiosity caused a massive spike in viewership. Roughly 10 million people watched that first episode where Jon and Kate discussed their troubles. Five episodes later, they announced they were separating.
The early summer of 2009 was a popular time for hand-wringing over the Gosselin phenomenon. Was this the future of reality television? What did this mean about how far we've fallen, that everyone was transfixed on the downfall of this family? What about the children? Would this mean a new direction for TLC, now that this stood to become a show more successful than anything they'd ever had?
Six months later — less than the length of a regular network season — it's ending. This is undoubtedly in part because the marital problems became legal problems, and the couple's problems became TLC's problems, to the point where the entire enterprise has become a liability attorney's worst nightmare. But it's also in part because the interest in the show that the publicity initially created had a remarkably short life. It turned out that nobody wanted to watch miserable, feuding parents taking their kids on day trips to zoos and bakeries in between calls to their lawyers, which you could read about on TMZ. Ratings by September had fallen to between one and two million viewers. As a phenomenon, it was over.
So what, if anything, have we learned?
Audiences don't hang around to feel depressed. The great majority of successful reality shows — especially the more mainstream successes — are, at least in their own universes, aspirational. Their optimism may be vague or patently phony, but they cling to it. “American Idol” is, in theory, about making someone's dreams come true. “Survivor” is about winning a million dollars and overcoming your limitations — so is “The Amazing Race.” “Supernanny” never ends with the parents learning they can't successfully put their kids to sleep on time after all. “The Bachelor” mythos is based on the (demonstrably false but undying) idea that it can discover true love. Even “Celebrity Rehab” closes with a hopeful graduation ceremony during which it is suggested that lives are potentially being saved. When the fundamental conflict of the show, which here was making the family work, is resolved negatively, there's little reason to stay.
Exceptions for depressing shows require very low stakes. There is a smaller set of shows that don't offer any redemption. “Tool Academy,” “Rock Of Love” — these are the train-wreck shows that don't hide the fact that nobody learns anything and everybody winds up quite possibly worse off than before. The key to those shows, however, is low stakes. Everybody on “Tool Academy” is an idiot, so the fact that it contains no glimmer of hope for them doesn't hurt its mission that much.
When you involve families, the stakes are substantially higher. The family shows that have become increasingly popular, including “Little People, Big World” and the Duggar family adventures chronicled in many, many specials leading up to the series “18 Kids And Counting,” do not feed on actual misery. You have to ultimately have faith in the family, and in the belief that they love each other and will work everything out. Even “Wife Swap” wants you to believe everyone is learning something, and everyone will be happier, whether or not there is any reason to believe that's remotely true.
But there's a reason why Nadya Suleman — the so-called “Octomom” — has managed to get a special to air but not a series. For one night, people might watch just for the scandal factor. But week after week, they won't. When kids are involved, the stakes are too high for guilty-pleasure viewing.
Train wrecks only work if you don't have to picture yourself on the train. Shows that can get away with hopeless depictions of humanity tend to focus on young, reckless idiots or absurdly privileged people — two groups perceived (rightly or wrongly) as less vulnerable than everyone else and also less relatable. Take the “Real Housewives” franchise, for instance. There's no hope to be found there, but that's OK: the people on the show don't look anything like the people who are expected to watch the show. “Real Housewives” can destroy its shallow rich people, because it isn't a show made for other shallow rich people. It's a show for people who long to see those people take a karmic punch to the gut.
The Gosselins, on the other hand, are a little too familiar. Yes, through the show, they were able to enjoy a big house and lots of trips and special things that many of their viewers couldn't afford. But the point of the show is supposed to be the family. The focus is on parenting, on the kids, and on the challenges of juggling eight children — a blown-up version of challenges lots of ordinary people face every day. The closer to home the show hits, the more hope it has to have.
And this one, in the end, started burning out at exactly the moment it hit the big time.