Cut and run is an instinctive network and advertiser response when a reality TV show unexpectedly implodes. But it’s the wrong answer, not only to a PR problem but to a fundamental question of why reality shows exist in the first place.
Nevertheless, the TLC network began Friday to remove repeats of “19 Kids and Counting” from its schedule. The long-running series follows the daily domestic lives of a deeply religious Arkansas family, the prolific Duggars, and the show is likely doomed after news broke Thursday that the family’s eldest son, Joshua Duggar, 27, had been accused of (but never charged with) abusing several girls when he was a teenager.
In very short order, Duggar apologetically resigned his position at the conservative Family Research Council in Washington while the clamor steadily rose for TLC to punitively and swiftly cancel “19 Kids and Counting.”
There are many viewers who wouldn’t miss the Duggars and their well-scrubbed, sunshiney, “Quiverfull” world of homespun, devoutly Christian values, where the oldest siblings are being quickly married off to like-
minded suitors from families of similar stripes. Second only to its fascination with Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar’s reproductive stamina, “19 Kids and Counting” has been extraordinarily preoccupied with the Duggar children as virgin brides and grooms; its cameras followed Josh’s wedding celebration in 2008 right up to the suggestive closing of the door to the newlyweds’ hotel room.
It would never have occurred to the Duggars (or perhaps even TLC) that all along they were making a TV show about a subculture, but that’s exactly what they were doing. For all the blushing and godly euphemisms around the subject of sex, “19 Kids and Counting” is very much a show about outre behaviors that go against the modern mainstream.
So now is not the time to cancel it. Now is the time for TLC to double down and have the courage to present America, at last, with a truly unscripted show about a family enduring a crisis largely of its own making. Life is not what it quite seems at the Duggar compound — but who ever watched that show and sincerely thought it was always that perfect? Who would honestly believe that you can raise 19 human beings to all think and act according to their parents’ beliefs? No family is immune to suffering; no family is without its secrets. Cancellation would erase the Duggars from popular culture just at the moment that they’ve become more real.
After a discussion about the Duggars in my weekly online TV chat last October, I took some grief from a conservative media watchdog Web site for saying, among other things, that “19 Kids and Counting” has “a very incurious way about being curious,” deliberately avoiding the most fascinating and perhaps difficult aspects of its subject, which violates the principles of the documentary process.
If you watch the show, you’ve probably noticed that the producers and the network steer away from exploring the nitty-gritty of the Duggars’ religious and political beliefs. When Josh took the job at the Family Research Council in 2013, the show mostly ignored the fact that he had joined an organization that virulently opposes gay rights. As the Duggar family’s presence in the culture wars increased (matriarch Michelle urged voters last year to oppose a local anti-discrimination ordinance), the show was instead transfixed by the older daughters’ giggly wedding-planning and the logistics of wholesome family outings. The Duggars have answered plenty of questions on the show about the way they choose to live, so long as the questions left room for a positive spin.
Now that the darkest clouds have rolled in, so has the potential for a much better, more informative show. What could be more absorbing for viewers than the presence of the camera as the Duggars try to navigate their way through a family crisis? What can we learn from them about how to treat (and how not to treat) allegations of sexual abuse? What could be more raw than the anguish of having a terrible secret revealed? What could be more human than the circling of the wagons and the wish that it could all go away?
Reality television, for better and certainly for worse, is the 21st century equivalent of Greek tragedy. It is where we exchange and impart themes of morality and personal failure. But what good is it if we always pull the plug at the first sign of hubristic collapse?