THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

'Jon & Kate' still lures us -- but for new reasons

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / August 2, 2009

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It’s still called “Jon & Kate Plus 8,’’ though, as the bloggerati have joked for months, it’s more like “Jon Minus 9’’ or “Kate Plus 8 Minus 1’’ or, I might humbly suggest, “8 Plus 2 Zeroes.’’ Having witnessed the dissolution of a marriage, America now gets front-row seats for a joint-custody arrangement. Jon and Kate Gosselin, unable to escape the paparazzi or the lure of the cameras or the bounty of their TLC contract, will not go away.

Instead, they’ll return tomorrow night at 9 for a new set of “Jon & Kate’’ episodes, promoted by TLC as a study of two separate but equally loving parents, moving on with their lives while caring for eight kids. In upcoming episodes, we’ll see Kate clumsily pitch a tent in the backyard and talk about how she now has to do guy things on her own.

Why this show remains on the air is hardly a mystery; it’s a ratings bonanza for TLC, much more so since the Gosselins have shoved the Jolie-Pitts off the tabloid covers. As it becomes a tale of the logistics of divorce, it could be more relatable than ever; a lot more couples split up than have sextuplets.

But how long “Jon & Kate’’ will keep the viewers salivating will depend on how much of the story TLC chooses to tell us. There were the on-air professions of normalcy, after all, that characterized the epi sodes early this summer, and the pulpier tale that played out in the press during the show’s brief hiatus.

There have been new romances, at least on Jon’s side; it’s hard to keep up, but seems he’s now dating a reporter who covered him for the tabloid Star, then nobly vacated her job in the name of journalistic integrity. There have been real estate transactions: Jon’s $5,000-a-month apartment in New York, Kate’s cheaper pad in less-exciting Rockville, Md.

Mostly, though, we’ve been privy to a PR battle over who is the worse parent. Is it Jon, who let a fashion designer pay for what Us Weekly dubbed a “champagne-soaked weekend’’ with his girl-friend in St. Tropez? Or is it Kate, alleged to have ignored her kids’ tears as she hustled them grimly to a six-hour photo shoot? Is Kate the woman who, in her “exclusive’’ interview with People, shed tears over her marriage as her kids were “happily playing’’ in the next room? Or is she the one in the viral video, denying water to one child while swigging from a bottle herself - as she made her fidgety brood sit still for an “Access Hollywood’’ interview? “You’re really, really mean,’’ the girl whined, standing in for the rest of America.

TLC is in a tricky spot; the network has branded itself as the warm-hearted TV home of oversize families and undersize people, so it has some interest in showing the Gosselins as caring parents with their kids’ needs at heart. On the other hand, the “Jon & Kate’’ ratings have soared since the tabloids took hold - especially for the heavily promoted “big announcement’’ shows in which the Gosselins discussed their marital woes and announced their divorce. More characteristically milquetoast episodes, such as one where the Gosselins got rides from the cast of “American Chopper,’’ haven’t fared as well.

America likes fertility, but it likes strife more. The Duggars, the pious and much better-behaved family on TLC’s “18 Kids and Counting,’’ get less than half of the “Jon & Kate’’ viewership, according to Nielsen ratings - though if Jim Bob went on a secret tryst to St. Tropez, there’s no telling how many would watch.

On “Jon & Kate’’ episodes thus far, TLC has handled things slyly, showing paparazzi lurking in the supermarket parking lot, allowing Kate to growl about the coverage and Jon to whine, while still maintaining the original format of cuddly scenes with adorable kids interspersed with confessionals on the sofa. How the kids feel has barely been mentioned, but the “Plus 8’’ part of the show was always an afterthought, a means to get to those sofa scenes, where the real heart of the series lay.

The nasty people in the tabloids this summer, after all, are just extensions of the characters the Gosselins played on TV: It wasn’t the extreme number of kids that made the show a hit so much as the extreme way they embodied the stereotype of marriage that has persisted since the dawn of civilization. Jon was the doltish, henpecked guy who finally got around to hanging those shelves in the garage. Kate was the nagging taskmaster who pointed out that they were crooked.

Even before the marriage fell apart, the show had started to turn into a freak-show version of itself: As their fame increased, the stars’ teeth grew whiter, their bellies slimmer, their clothes fancier. Kate’s hair, once brown, grew blonder and more devilishly asymmetrical by the week. Two people who seemed to be in love, despite the bickering, grew less loving and less likable by far.

It was just a matter of time, then, before the couch they shared became a solo platform for backhanded jibes. Whether the show keeps its viewers now will depend on whether things stay nasty enough to feed the tabloids, which feed the ratings, which feed the tabloids again. Nobody watches TV to see an amicable divorce, and Jon and Kate have set the bar for bitterness high. Now, it’s their solemn duty to keep it up. Or, alternately, they could just vacate the airwaves for good.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net.

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