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Critic's notebook

‘8’ is enough

There’s no point paying attention to ‘Jon & Kate’ anymore

Kate Gosselin has been making the rounds of daytime talk shows, including the “Today’’ show (above), claiming Jon took $230,000 from their joint account. Kate Gosselin has been making the rounds of daytime talk shows, including the “Today’’ show (above), claiming Jon took $230,000 from their joint account. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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When I think of the Gosselins, the “Jon & Kate Plus 8’’ stars who now dominate the celebrity press, I think of plastic dolls. The female wears an asymmetrical hairstyle and mom-glam sunglasses and the male has a slobby gut and a shrinking forehead. I also think of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

They aren’t people, Jon and Kate Gosselin, so much as synthetic playthings from our cultural toy box. They talk, but their strings are being pulled by publicists, TMZ, and other powers in the gossip media-industrial complex. They walk, but only toward and away from the cameras pointed in their direction. They have no depth or talent that I can see, except when it comes to fame-mongering, at which they are bottomless pits of wisdom. Beginning in the spring, Us Weekly told us to care about this reality duo, and so we do, to the tune of millions of magazines sold.

The past two weeks have been an infotainment Gossepalooza. First TLC announced that the series would be renamed “Kate Plus 8’’ in November and focus on Kate as a single mom. Then Jon insisted that TLC stop production on the series, and he appeared on “Larry King Live’’ to make his argument. Then Kate tried to muster support by doing the talk circuit and claiming that Jon took $230,000 from their joint account. Then Jon accused Kate of lying and locking him out of a room holding important papers. Then, I assume, they sold more magazines.

They haven’t succeeded in bringing more viewers to “Jon & Kate Plus 8,’’ however. The ratings have stayed low in recent weeks - perhaps an indication that more and more viewers are sharing my aversion.

Frankly, I can’t maintain an authentic - or even an ironic - conversation about the Gosselins for longer than a minute. Who caused the break-up? Is Jon a heavy or a hero for halting production? Should the kids be on TV? Will Kate get a talk show? I don’t care. They are real people, of course, and not toys, but I can’t identify anything real about them to explore. When they address each other through “Entertainment Tonight’’ and “Today,’’ rather than privately, I hear only press releases. Their public theater is flat.

And yet I can talk about the characters on AMC’s “Mad Men’’ for hours. They truly aren’t real; they’re fictional creations of writer-producer Matthew Weiner, and they’re wrapped in the trappings of an earlier era. But their behavior opens the door to all kinds of human mystery - about relationships, about the spoken and the unspoken, about what has and hasn’t changed across the decades. They manage to inspire and bear analysis, like the characters on “In Treatment,’’ or “Friday Night Lights,’’ or “The Wire’’; they are multidimensional.

Even little Sally Draper on “Mad Men,’’ the baby boomer destined to obsess about truth, evokes more complexity in her few scenes than the Gosselins do in their miles of media bickering.

The only beguiling mystery afoot in the Gosselin saga is why more people don’t see through their manufactured drama and ignore them. Seriously, we’ve undergone a rigorous education in tabloid stunting in the past few decades, as talentless pretenders have manipulated their way onto our screens and into our lives. We know that the Gosselins, Spencer and Heidi Pratt, Kevin Federline, and - why? - the Kardashians are constructed from completely artificial ingredients, don’t we? Ultimately, when you dig an inch beneath their histrionics, all you ever find is the need to attract the media.

The bottom line? When it comes down to exhibitionistas such as the Gosselins, fictional people are more real than real people. Maybe it’s just me and my addiction to scripted storytelling. I love a shaped plot with dialogue that gestures into the unknown, and I am fascinated by the microcosmic possibilities of invented worlds. But when the troubles in Don and Betty Draper’s marriage flare up, I have to admit, I’m far more emotionally engaged than when Jon and Kate go at it. A hotbed of sham melodrama, the Gosselins leave me cold.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.