Supersized families make a mark on TV

by Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

16 February 2009


JON & KATE PLUS 8 9 p.m. EST Mondays TLC 17 KIDS AND COUNTING 9 p.m. EST Tuesdays TLC (Note: Both shows frequently air repeat episodes. Consult listings for days, times.)

Most of us don’t come from supersized families that could field their own football team or re-create Woodstock in their back yard. So when we hear about Nadya Suleman, the Southern California woman who recently bolstered her squadron of children to 14 by giving birth to octuplets, we just can’t relate.

“What would it be like to live with all those kids under one roof?” we wonder, struggling to grasp the mind-blowing grand scale of it all.

Of course, that’s when we turn to TV to educate us via its superficial and TV-fied methods. Currently airing on TLC are two reality series - “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” and “17 Kids and Counting” - that give us an up-close-and-personal feel for families living large. Very, very large.

At the center of “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” are proud - and frazzled - parents Jon and Kate Gosselin. About eight years ago, she gave birth to fraternal twin girls, Mady and Cara. Four years later, they tried to add one more child to their brood but wound up with sextuplets (don’t ask me to recall their names).

“Today I could very well lose my mind,” Kate says during the show’s intro that displays a pre-labor photo of Mommy with a stomach roughly the size of Rhode Island.

“And although the stress of having two sets of multiples doesn’t always bring out the best in us,” she continues, “we’re a family.”

“And we’re in this together,” chirps Jon.

It all seems very “Brady-Bunch” sweet, but just one problem: Kate can be a raving she-devil. Obsessive and neurotic, the woman constantly talks down to poor Jon as if he were one of the kids and berates him over the most minor of issues. (In a recent episode, she launched into a lengthy tirade after he failed to use a coupon while buying a shower nozzle.)

Laid-back Jon, for the most part, commendably shrugs her off. But mark my words, one day he’ll blow and it will make for boffo ratings.

Of course, we might all be as edgy as Kate if we had to endure an average of 30 diaper changes a day (when the sextuplets were babies) or repeatedly serve as referee amid little-tyke squabbles. Sure, she gets some help from neighbors and relatives - and the Gosselins have scored plenty of extravagant freebies via endorsement deals - but, still, I wouldn’t trade places with them.

Just consider, for example, the logistic nightmares: Packing for a beach vacation is like transporting a small army upon a flotilla of car seats. On a picnic or field trip, there’s the constant fear of having one kid go MIA. And when the Gosselins recently moved into a humongous new house, they discovered that its spaciousness makes it tough to locate and tend to children using the bathroom.

Of the twins, Mady is the camera hog, often throwing tantrums and challenging her mom for top drama-queen honors. Little Mady has taken her share of knocks on the Internet, but you’ve got to sympathize with her. All she wants is some attention, most of which goes to the sextuplets.

Speaking of which, the six rug rats’ main role on the show is to emit a lot of shrieks and shouts, along with the universal kid declarations of “That’s mine!” and “I didn’t do it!” For the most part, though, they’re very adorable. And it’s amazing how much more adorable they become when you realize they’re behind the glass panel of your TV set and not in your own living room.

But for the Duggars of “17 Kids and Counting,” eight wasn’t nearly enough. Heading this evangelical Christian clan from Arkansas are Jim Bob and Michelle, who just welcomed their 18th child in December. If you’re keeping score, that makes 10 boys and eight girls (ranging up to age 20), and, yes, they’ll be changing the name of the show to reflect the new addition.

The Duggars have been the subject of fiery online debate, in which liberals often condemn their choices as reckless, and conservatives applaud their commitment to God and family. Michelle is also a convenient target on infertility Web sites: “I’d like to give birth to just one healthy baby,” gripes one bitter poster, “and this woman squeezes them out like Pez.”

I find it interesting that the Duggar children, all bearing names that start with “J” - Joshua, Jana, John-David, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Joseph, and so on and so forth - are permitted very limited access to television, yet here they are starring in their own TV show. Ah, there’s nothing like exploiting the media, and your kids, when it suits your needs.

But do they make for good TV? That depends on whether you enjoy watching a fleet of human beings smiling for the camera and working in Disney-esque harmony (Michelle is practically Snow White compared to Kate’s Cruella de Vil) while making it look almost too easy.

All this tends to raise suspicions within a jaded reality-TV viewer. Are the Duggars animatronic cyborgs? Can they really be this pleasant and happy? Or are the editors simply leaving all the acrimony on the cutting-room floor?

It also makes one wonder what a series pegged to Suleman would look like. Word has it that she has hired some Los Angeles publicists to field media, movie and TV offers. Suleman, now with 14 kids under the age of 7, is a divorcee who lives with her mother and has collected thousands in disability payments. Sounds like it would be a very different show from the one the Duggars put on.

Would you watch that show? Do we need that show? But perhaps the more important question is: What is television doing to these children? And how will being forced to play out a big chunk of their lives in a fishbowl affect them in later years?

When it comes to TV programs about jumbo-sized families, maybe two is more than enough.

//Mixed media