Dug­gar scan­dal is dark side of re­al­ity

That fam­i­lies have dis­turb­ing se­crets shouldn’t be a sur­prise to TLC or view­ers.


Here we go again. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are shocked, shocked to learn that the fam­ily show­cased by a popular re­al­ity show is dys­func­tional in ways out­side the bound­aries of the pro­gram’s cho­sen and care­fully scripted choice of dys­func­tion.

We are, one more time with feel­ing, a na­tion be­trayed.

How could the Dug­gars, the per­pet­u­ally prop­a­gat­ing fam­ily at the cen­ter of TLC’s “19 Kids and Count­ing,” have ne­glected to in­form us that their el­dest son, Josh, had in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tact with sev­eral of his sis­ters and a babysit­ter over a pe­riod of months when he was a teen?

For years, Jim Bob and Michelle Dug­gar have cel­e­brated their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of fam­ily val­ues, with its fac­tory-like lo­gis­tics, child-la­bor econ­omy and wor­ri­some 18th cen­tury val­ues. For years, they have taken pride in es­chew­ing cer­tain fruits of the mod­ern age, in­clud­ing birth con­trol, no­tions of fe­male equal­ity and free­dom of self-ex­pres­sion. We watched, as if at a his­toric recre­ation, the in­sis­tence on mod­est cloth­ing and “gen­der ap­pro­pri­ate” hair­styles, and the par­ent-con­trolled courtships of the el­der chil­dren.

How on earth were we, the un­sus­pect­ing tele­vi­sion view­ing public, to know that there was a darker side to this Amer­i­can idyll?

Well, we could have paid at­ten­tion to re­al­ity tele­vi­sion’s re­cent his­tory, or even the net­work tagline un­der which the show ap­peared.

An ini­tially hyp­notic cross be­tween “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Sev­enth Heaven” and “Hoard­ers,” the then-“17 Kids and Count­ing” pre­miered in 2008 as part of TLC’s shift to­ward ex­treme fam­ily pro­gram­ming, some­thing the net­work branded un­der “Life Sur­prises.”

And as we all know, more tears are shed over an­swered brands than unan­swered ones.

“Pride goeth be­fore a fall,” was one of the bi­b­li­cal phrases not quoted by Ma and Pa Dug­gar when they took to Fox News on Wed­nes­day night to dis­cuss how they dealt with their teen son’s dys­func­tion. Af­ter the Fox in­ter­view, two of the daugh­ters came out in sup­port of their brother — they seemed far more up­set over the un­seal­ing of court records and the sub­se­quent me­dia up­roar than their brother’s ac­tions.

Yet no Dug­gar has thus far sug­gested that, in light of that me­dia up­roar, it might be a good time for the fam­ily to stop be­ing on tele­vi­sion.

Many, many other peo­ple have, though. Show spon­sors have pulled out in droves as so­cial me­dia dis­gust from ev­ery side con­tin­ues to rise. Some de­cry the Dug­gars’ fail­ure to press charges against their son, while oth­ers are out­raged over the me­dia’s ex­ploita­tion of the past youth­ful mis­be­hav­ior. (Sarah Palin help­fully at­tempted to shift the one cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion cur­rently not re­volv­ing around Lena Dun­ham back to Lena Dun­ham, but the all­cap hys­te­ria of her tweet made it easy to re­sist.)

One hopes TLC is do­ing some soul-search­ing. At least two other “Life Sur­prises” se­ries — “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and the “Tod­dlers & Tiaras” spinoff “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” — have pub­licly ex­ploded. Jon and Kate Gos­selin be­gan a messy and highly pub­li­cized di­vorce two years af­ter their se­ries pre­miered, and TLC dropped “Honey Boo Boo” last year af­ter it was re­vealed that Mama June was dat­ing a con­victed pe­dophile.

But life con­tin­u­ally “sur­prises” in all ar­eas of the re­al­ity de­mo­graphic. Sui­cide, crim­i­nal con­vic­tion and di­vorce have plagued Bravo’s “The Real Housewives” fran­chise. Mean­while, death and in­jury have be­come a le­git­i­mate haz­ard on sur­vival-- ori­ented pro­gram­ming, and keep­ing up with the woes of tele­vi­sion’s many teen moms is nearly im­pos­si­ble.

Cait­lyn Jen­ner’s tri­umphant emer­gence af­ter years of ru­mor and pa­parazz­i­fu­eled stalk­ing is one of the few rev­e­la­tions pro­duced from re­al­ity pro­gram­ming that ac­tu­ally in­spires rather than de­presses.

Re­al­ity pro­gram­ming, es­pe­cially that which deals specif­i­cally with hu­man in­ter­ac­tion (as op­posed to some sort of com­pe­ti­tion), is a work in progress, a thor­oughly mod­ern con­struct built to ref lect the cul­ture’s con­stant ten­sion be­tween ro­man­ti­cism and cyn­i­cism.

We want self-por­traits, but we pre­fer them Pho­to­shopped. We want to peer into the re­al­ity of other fam­ily’s lives, but we want it to be ef­fort­less and en­ter­tain­ing. We want drama and con­flict, but keep it light and petty, please. If it turns dark and ugly, we howl with shock and out­rage.

Should the Dug­gars have set them­selves up as an ex­am­ple of fam­ily life, es­pe­cially with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing their son’s mis­con­duct? No. But for us to watch any re­al­ity pro­gram at this point un­der the as­sump­tion that what we are see­ing is some­how less fic­tion­al­ized than a scripted drama is ab­surd.

Any oth­er­wise in­tel­li­gent so­ci­ety where peo­ple ex­u­ber­antly and re­peat­edly livetweet a show in which a group of peo­ple com­pete to sell them­selves in mar­riage are far too de­pen­dent on glass ac­cents to throw too many stones.

There are many le­git­i­mate life sur­prises. But that many fam­i­lies have dis­turb­ing se­crets and that re­al­ity show par­tic­i­pants are of­ten screwed up are not among them.

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