Jon and Kate: Why We Can't Stop Looking

Cynics may argue that their marriage meltdown is an example of schadenfreude at its best. After all, everybody likes to crane their necks at the proverbial car wreck -- and Jon and Kate's crash is particularly explosive.
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Big mistake.

That was my gut reaction six weeks ago when I heard that my Us Weekly powers-that-be had decided to put Jon and Kate Gosselin -- stars of the TLC reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8 -- on the cover. Seems Jon had recently enjoyed a rollicking late night out with a pretty female who was not his wife. We had reported it out for weeks, and it was time to break it.

Insert eye roll here. Though I'm a senior writer at the magazine, that show was blissfully off my radar. Who cares about an unscripted program featuring an ordinary looking Pennyslvania-bred family with a bunch of kids? Unless the Real Housewives of New York were the ones planning play dates and Simon Cowell was critiquing them, I wasn't interested. TLC? Please. I wouldn't turn it on in a cheap hotel even if the only other channel available were the Golf Channel. And I was certain that our savvy young readers would feel the same way. Ok, maybe a few of my mom friends in the Midwest would devour the story, but that's it. Should have gone with the scary-skinny Lindsay Lohan cover. Definitely.

Yet that issue not only pushed a million copies on the newsstand, it sparked a pop culture frenzy. Each day, Jon and Kate turn up as late-night punchlines and news headlines. The May 25 premiere pulled in nearly 10 million viewers. Those are Sopranos-in-its-heyday numbers; in other words, far more wide-reaching than the playground crowd. Meanwhile, Us Weekly has featured Jon and Kate's evolving problems on its cover for the past five consecutive weeks. The last drama to warrant such coverage: Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's split in January 2005.

Just to be clear: Jon Gosselin is not gorgeous and dashing movie god and Kate Gosselin did not star on an iconic sitcom. A split isn't even on the table (yet). Yet they're our most popular celebrities -- and their saga seems to have legs of steel.

How did this phenomenon come to be? Yes, there is impeccable timing involved. The story has flourished during a time when Angelina is not pregnant, Britney is not crazy and Jessica Simpson is not wearing high-wasted mom jeans. Had Us Weekly unearthed this scandal even three months ago -- when Octomom and Rihanna dominated the news -- this might have been a footnote.

But probably not. For the Jon and Kate story has an appeal that's unlike any other in the celebrity lexicon. Until now, our big stars primarily existed in a world where blemishes get airbrushed and scandals get glossed over via sterile publicist statements. (Heck, even Tweets are just 140-characters long). Take Pitt and Jolie. As much as we love them, we don't really know them. Thanks to their orchestrated images, they come across as this madly-in-love couple who seem to have no problems traveling the world while raising six children. Surely Pitt has stresses, but there were no traces of it during a recent taped and breezy interview with Ann Curry on a yacht at the Cannes Film Festival. He wore an ascot, for pete's sake! It's a unattainable standard.

For two years, the Gosselins' as-seen-on-TV life seemed equally manufactured. As my mom friends love to point out, Kate juggled eight kids and made it look effortless. Sure, she often berated Jon on camera -- but their fights were usually petty and manageable. And those kids! Adorable, happy and adored. As a result, there was a bland let's-hug-it-out sitcom feel to each episode.

No more. It took an infidelity scandal, but the Gosselins are now finally and mercifully real. With no facade, Jon and Kate can come clean about the emotional toll of eight kids, diverging lifestyles and a broken union. Never was that feeling more apparent than during that season premiere when the estranged couple sat awkwardly on a cramped love seat and somberly admitted that the future of their relationship is unknown. Even by reality TV standards, it was pure uncensored access. And utterly compelling.

Of course, some cynics may argue that their marriage meltdown is an example of schadenfreude at its best (worst?). After all, everybody likes to crane their necks at the proverbial car wreck -- and Jon and Kate's crash is particularly explosive. (Knee-deep in trouble, a freshly tanned Kate chose to go on a book tour and praise her maternal decisions while a miserable-looking Jon stayed home with the kids). Indeed, for longtime viewers, perhaps there is something exhilarating about seeing Kate get her karmic comeuppance. And for those captivated by the Suri Cruises and Kingston Rossdales of the world, there's a vested interest in hoping that the kids -- who never be asked to thrust into the limelight -- emerge unscathed.

All of these storylines will undoubtedly unfold over the next (gulp) 39 episodes and countless more cover stories. All the while, Jon and Kate will remain more relatable and fascinating than any Hollywood start making $10 million a movie and spending every night on a red carpet. It's messy, screwed up and the stakes are tragically high. I'll be watching, and chances are good that I won't be rolling my eyes.

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