This Monday, the saga will finally end. Jon & Kate Plus 8 will air its final episode.
Some of you are sad. Many of you have been ready for months to say good riddance as this series, which began as a wholesome paean to family values, collapsed into a documentation of a very ugly and public divorce.
In the end, perhaps the cameras truly revealed how their mere presence alters reality rather than merely recording it. It left a bitter taste that what was sold to viewers as reality TV was something very different.
Will that change viewers, meaning you, going forward? What if anything has been learned from this experience?
Let’s first look at what happened here.
The Gosselin’s journey to infamy began when their sextuplets were born on May 10, 2004. Dubbed the Hershey’s Kisses, the babies attracted immediate media attention. Jon and Kate, married then for nearly five years, already had twins, making for a real life Eight Is Enough.
Appearing on the scene at a time when America was trying to maintain the best of its past while facing an uncertain 21st century, Jon and Kate seemed like great representatives of traditional family values. They had ignored doctors’ advice to reduce the number of embryos and were rewarded with six healthy children.
To many Christians, they were an inspiration. To nearly everyone who wanted to believe that happy and healthy families flourished and functioned, they offered hope. One thing millions agreed on – those kids were cute.
The Discovery Health Channel filmed a one hour documentary, presenting Jon and Kate as a loving couple dealing with real financial and logistical challenges of raising multiple babies. It proved so popular that the network filmed a follow up, then offered them a series which moved in season three to the higher profile TLC.
The early seasons were appealing because they were so, pardon the expression real. In season one, the twins turned six and Jon turned 30. Subsequent seasons involved trips to the dentist, clipping coupons, hiring a nanny, and toddler meltdowns. Jon had an ordinary full time job in IT. Kate wore sweats.
As the show became more popular, it changed – and so did Jon and Kate. Many perceived Kate as a controlling shrew and pitied the laid back Jon. They were no longer an ordinary family dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Jon quit his job. They moved to a million dollar mansion. Episodes often focused on products that were donated to the family. Kate got a tummy tuck. Jon got hairplugs. Perhaps inevitably, the Gosselins became celebrities – the opposite of what made them so endearing and, again pardon the expression, real.
Last spring, rumors began circulating that the Gosselins’ marriage was on the rocks. The May 3 edition of Us magazine featured an article about Jon taking a trip with teacher Deanna Humel. Soon, Kate acknowledged there were problems. Longtime fans were joined by gossip-hungry lookie-loos, with everyone asking, “What was the real story?”
On May 25, 2009,, the fifth season debuted to record ratings. Millions of people tuned in to parse each moment of the show for evidence of marital strife. The tabloids began covering their every move, fanning the flames with articles that insinuated both were having extramarital affairs. They had supplanted the intrigue formerly accorded only superstar couples like Brad and Angie.
On the June 22 episode, Jon and Kate announced their separation. (Rewatch the moment below.) Over ten million viewers tuned in to watch the trainwreck and see if Kate embellished on her explanation that “Jon’s activities have left me no choice but to file legal procedures…” But subsequent episodes that showcased the parents separately interacting with the kids, proved far less appealing.
In fact, as the divorce played out in public, it became clear that the couple had been living separate lives for a long time, calling into question how much of the show was real. Furthermore, it became apparent that the couple’s activities off camera were far more interesting and real than anything viewers saw on camera – and declining ratings reflected as much.
Jon quickly became every woman’s nightmare: an Ed Hardy-wearing party animal pathetically determined to regain his lost youth. His actions called into question his image as the devoted father. He embarked on flings with both a reporter for The Star and Hailee Glassman. He and Glassman milked their romance for maximum media attention, down to arguing for the ‘Entertainment Tonight’ cameras. He struck up a friendship with Michael Lohan. Rumors abounded that he would appear on a new reality show with Octomon Nadya Suleman.
Amid such behavior, Kate emerged as the sympathetic figure, a woman left to raise eight children alone. If she seemed controlling, it was because she was married to an adolescent. Still, she obviously loved the spotlight every bit as much as Jon, if not more. She continued to appear on news and talk shows and began developing new projects of her own.
Lost in the shuffle are the eight children, who have spent their entire childhood on camera without their consent. It will be years before we know how they feel about any of this. Publishers and producers are probably counting down the days until they are old enough to write their own tell all.
One cannot help wondering what would have become of the family if they had not consented to be filmed. Maybe they would have divorced anyway. Maybe Jon always regretted becoming a father at a young age. Maybe Kate was always materialistic. Or maybe the television show changed them. The money and the fame transformed them from a family to a commodity.
With producers dictating their day to day activity, their lives became scripted. They began viewing themselves as celebrities who were entitled to the same glamorous lifestyle as movie stars. Their version of reality was probably as twisted and contorted and confused as the one served to the folks who tuned in.
Following Monday night’s finale, ‘Jon and Kate Plus 8’ will be no more. But that does not mean the Gosselin children will get to live a normal life. Next spring, TLC will launch a new reality series starring Kate. After all, the show must go on – or as Kate has said, she has to earn a living.
Knowing what we know about the Gosselins and reality TV, will the show go on for you, the viewer?
Can you trust reality television any more? Will you keep watching a product whose authenticity is questionable? Has this made viewers any smarter or wiser? Should TV executives keep making shows like ‘Jon & Kate’? Or have you had enough?
The finale episode of ‘Jon & Kate Plus 8’ airs Monday, November 23, on TLC at 9 PM.