When The Real World first premiered on MTV, the cast members’ voices reminded us during the credits that this was what happened when people “stopped being polite and starting being real.” And for the past almost-twenty years of the reality craze, show after show has offered us some sort of glimpse into the real lives of Z-list celebrities, aging rockers, fake millionaires, survivors, drunken co-eds, dumb blonds, midgets, clothing designers, models, and thousands of other people. In a way, watching a reality show makes you feel a sense of ownership over the people you’re watching. We feel for our stars. We care when Tori gets jealous of Dean’s diving instructor, or the single mom gets a make over that makes her feel alive again, or one of the models breaks down because of how ugly she’s felt her whole life*. You feel personally offended when Chris beats Adam, or Jason dumps Melissa, or JT turns out to be kind of a douche in the last few episodes of Survivor. It’s a more intimate experience than fiction, even when we can see the thin veil of “reality” along the edges of the show. Even though as rational individuals we know that this footage is HIGHLY edited, and these people are always constantly aware of the cameras in their faces, and that reality is not something that can be served up in neat thirty minute packages, there is something inherently comforting about the experiences of real people within the world we live in.
Double that on shows that deal with normal situations, rather than intense competitions. Jon and Kate Plus 8 started as the escapades of a married couple suddenly blessed with eight children dealing with all the child rearing difficulties that people around the world have dealt with since the first baby popped out and started wanting attention. It was at once familiar and fantastic, normal and extreme.
There’s a principal in science called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which says basically (and pardon my science, since I’m a film major, not a physics major) that when we start to observe the innermost workings of an atom we inherently change the atom. I think it applies to reality shows as well. Who knows what the life of Jon and Kate and their eight superhumanly adorable children would have been like if Kate hadn’t published a book and the family hadn’t become a weekly staple on The Discovery Channel and then TLC? But it’s undeniably changed their lives. Last season, it often felt like it changed for the better. The kids got to sit front row center at Globetrotters games, and meet Phillies all stars, and the whole family moved into a bigger home with the kind of woods middle class families dream about.
And then the season ended, but their lives didn’t. Because outside of cute escapades captured and lovingly edited for broadcast is the unrelenting pressure of being a part of that many people’s lives. Having that many people think they not only deserve to see your show, but deserve to know and understand what goes on in between shots. Half of America feels like it owns John and Kate, and inherently wants to dissect them and what makes them work.
This isn’t to say it’s all our fault and John and Kate are innocent bystanders. They’ve capitalized on their children and their fame for money and opportunities that most Americans can’t even dream of, and there is a price for that sort of luck. But by the time we see Kate unable to take the kids to the store without having to avoid the paparazzi, I’m forced to wonder how big a price this family should have to pay. This scene in particular is absurd. Kate is already being followed by TLC’s omnipresent cameras. She’s not out at a club, or in a sleazy motel with a bodyguard. She’s going to the Party Supplies store. WITH A CAMERA ALREADY FOLLOWING HER. What do the paparazzi hope to capture that isn’t already being captured? The invasion of her privacy, therefore, starts to feel like the purpose, rather than an unfortunate side-effect, of their stalking her.
The premier of Jon and Kate Plus 8 is unfathomably colored by the allegations all over the tabloids about the two’s disintegrating relationship. “I’m just really, really angry,” says Kate blankly to the camera, looking every bit defeated. I was actually shocked by how straight forwardly both John and Kate dealt with the issues. Both deny any allegations of their own infidelity, although Kate seemed pretty convinced that John cheated. But that’s hardly my point. Whether or not John cheated, whether or not Kate has been overbearing, whether or not they deserve what they’re getting for serving their lives up to the television public in the first place, it’s still damn sad to watch two people who once loved each other unable to face each other. And it’s even sadder to think of the true tragedy of their adorable eight children scampering around underfoot, unaware for the moment of just how deeply in it they are.
In a way, it feels like John and Kate are held up as a sacrifice on the altar of our morbid obsession into the deconstruction of truth. And believe me, I’m an avid participant. How else would I know things like that the brother of John’s supposed mistress is the one who first reported that story, or that Kate is alleged to have gotten a tummy tuck? But at a certain point watching the season premier, I just started to feel indescribably sad. Because this show is being broadcast in something pretty damn close to real time (the season starts on the sextuplets’ birthday, May 10th, a mere three week turn around), we’re literally watching all this awfulness pour down on the family. It’s like watching the snuff film of a marriage. And I wish that the atom of their lives, once observed, could return to its normal rotation, but I know full and well that’s probably impossible.
*Sure, the feeling I normally have about this is amusement, but it’s a feeling none the less.