The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jenny McCarthy tries to mend her anti-vaccine reputation with reality TV. It’s too little, too late.

Donnie Wahlberg and Jenny McCarthy on date night. (A&E)

The second episode of “Donnie Loves Jenny” — a new A&E reality show chronicling the newlywed era of Jenny McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg — is the picture of messy domestic bliss.

The Playboy model-turned-TV-personality snuggles under the covers while the boy-band veteran sweetly volunteers to get her son, Evan, ready for school. Wahlberg bumbles adorably around the kitchen, spilling juice as he tries to scramble eggs and pack a PB&J lunch for the 12-year-old. McCarthy frets that Wahlberg won’t know Evan’s routine. “Don’t forget Evan’s science project!” she yells from the bedroom. Uh oh! Wahlberg forgets the project and leaves the lunch on the counter — but his wife is so touched by his effort that she spends the day grocery shopping for a special homemade dinner. Later, the two have a romantic date night while Grandpa takes Evan out for ice cream.

Laying it on a little thick, you think? No surprise that these two are working overtime to endear themselves. McCarthy has experienced a career slide in the last year, losing a coveted gig on “The View” after just one season. Her decline seems linked to her unlikely sideline in advocacy: McCarthy has been so vocal about her stance against vaccinations (she says they caused her son’s autism) that she’s become the celebrity face of the controversial movement — and the focus of the backlash against it, with some casting her as a walking, talking public health threat. The heat got so intense that she wrote a column last spring insisting that she was not an anti-vaxxer; it did little to mend her reputation.

So, McCarthy chose the route of so many misguided B-listers aiming to repair a public image: A reality show. The fourth episode airs Wednesday night, in a slot following her in-laws’ adventures-in-the-restaurant-biz series “The Wahlbergers.” But it’s too little, too late. She’s already spoken too much about vaccinations. And now the topic is back in the headlines more than ever, thanks to the Disneyland measles outbreak. No matter how much McCarthy wants to humanize herself to the greater viewing public (an average of about a million people tuned in to the first several episodes), she’s got a long way to go.

Still, the show pushes the fact that McCarthy is just an everyday mom — loving, zany, overprotective. Trigger warning if you’re squeamish about seeing kids dragged in front of reality TV cameras: Evan, age 12 and beyond adorable, is heavily featured in the first two episodes. He’s a major theme as McCarthy and Wahlberg blend their families, though Wahlberg’s two kids from a previous marriage are not shown on camera. Evan walks McCarthy down the aisle in the premiere, which showed the couple’s August 2014 wedding, and gives a toast at the ceremony.

Another scene makes the point that McCarthy was cautious about dating as a single parent. “Wait, so how’d you guys meet again?” Evan asks McCarthy on the wedding episode; she re-tells the story of how they connected (on the set of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” naturally).

“I went on dates and then realized how awesome he was, so I had him meet you,” McCarthy explains. “And I said, ‘You have to meet my son, Evan. He’s the most amazing boy ever.’ Then you met him and you saw how good he was to you, too. And I said, ‘He’s gotta realize he’s gonna marry both of us. He’s marrying you, too.”

During an on-camera interview after the fact, McCarthy tears up as she remembers the conversation: “To see Evan, in this moment, light up and fill with love and want to know more about his step-dad, I know that he was so touched and so moved, which moved me almost to tears,” she says.

The show is filled with such heart-to-hearts, with McCarthy recounting her ordeals as a single mom, starting with her ex filing for divorce in 2005 the same week that Evan was diagnosed with autism. The rest of the show is all family family family: Wahlberg brags about his parenting skills perfected while raising two boys, and relishes bonding with his new stepson. McCarthy spends lots of time with her parents, Skyping with her mom about recipes and making a place in their home for her dad to move in. Lots of scenes of Wahlberg and McCarthy cuddling on the couch and smooching over big cups of cocoa.

“I love you so much I want to stick you in the microwave and watch you pop like popcorn and eat you slowly and then floss you out of my teeth,” McCarthy coos to Wahlberg. Yuck.

It’s a very homey and cozy invasion of privacy, which is the best you can hope for with one of these “get to know the happy couple” docu-series. But it feels far too scripted to be taken seriously, and a too-obvious ploy for McCarthy to appeal to the constituencies she has alienated over the years, as she insists now that her anti-vaccine views were misunderstood. Once again — and we can’t say it enough — a reality show will never be a way to fix a reputation that’s already damaged that badly.