Poor Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar: Just two weeks ago, patriarch and matriarch of an impossibly large brood and stars of a hit reality show. This morning: Chattel in the culture wars. Two weeks ago, they were virtually unknown to everyone save about four million viewers -- and, believe me, people who watch "Inside Amy Schumer" never even knew what a "Duggar" was. Schumer will probably have an eviscerating sketch about them next week. The Duggars are now universally known...There is such thing as "bad publicity" after all.
Everyone has to have an opinion this morning about the Duggars. It's part of our water cooler culture, in that you must have an opinion on everything at all times. "What did you think about last night's interview...what's with Michelle's hair...are they hypocrites? ...Not hypocrites?..is there a vast left-wing conspiracy out to get them...?"
It's all part of the ritual in modern American life, as channeled through the most important cultural arbiter we have (and I'm not talking the Internet or Facebook or water cooler): Television.
But what matters now, the day after, at least to fans, TLC, and the family itself, is: What's next for the show?
My professional opinion, born of a vast wealth of knowledge, historical perspective, hunches, insights, guesses and flat-out spitballs thrown against the wall to see which ones actually stick, is this: The show will go on.
In fact, I have no insights or historical knowledge at all. I know what you know: If "19 Kids and Counting" is making a lot of money for TLC, and by association for parent Discovery, then "19" will continue. If "19" is losing steam...if the parents are demanding more money...if ratings are dying...if revenue is sliding...then the answer is obvious: The show will not go on.
I read somewhere that "19" grosses about $25 million per season for TLC. That would be a particularly large pile to say goodbye to, or climb down from. But that was before. We're talking about the future. With advertisers pulling out, the pile may get smaller. Advertisers, who have a long history of cut-and-run, could return when the heat's off. Assuming they do, the show will go on.
However, the larger question the day after the Duggars' headliner with Megyn Kelly has to be "What show?" Clearly, this is no longer "19 Kids and Counting." This is "19 Kids and Counting, and a Skeleton in the Closet." The illusion of family amity, of don't-eat-the-daisies filial perfection under a bright cloudless Arkansas sky, is shattered forever. The daisies have been eaten. They tasted bitter last night.
In fact, the Duggars did a good job Wednesday night and so did Kelly, and by "job" and "good" I don't mean to suggest that this was some cynical ploy on their part to preserve the cash cow, and therefore succeeded. In fact, the interview dredged up even more questions than either time nor patience could resolve. Why the delays? Why do a reality series? Why, why, why? Doubt was absolutely sown, not dispelled.
But taken at face value, which is all we can really do here, they addressed a problem that became public -- a pubescent boy who struggled to contain what generations of other pubescent boys have struggled with, but who also improperly touched his sisters while they were sleeping. Fourteen or not, the word "molestation" sticks. It is the scarlet letter. There's nothing they can do to dislodge word or letter.
The interview, as these sorts of interviews always are, was a little sad and not a little creepy either. They dragged Josh before a state trooper who would later be jailed for child pornography? What sort of rabbit hole was this big happy family actually traveling down when the cameras weren't rolling?
People, mostly fans I suspect, will say forget it. Others will continue to call the Duggars hypocrites, while using their fallen state to further their own politico-social agendas. Nothing much will have changed, at least in terms of minds already made up.
But the show is no longer the show. It is something else. The fourth wall has been breached, even broken down, the illusion shot to pieces. Fans -- the only ones TLC really cares about here -- have glimpsed the other side of that now demolished wall. They know that what "seemed" is now actually "was."
Maybe they feel cheated, maybe not -- but there's no way any of them will return to the show without having this one huge salient fact about the Duggars squarely at the front of their minds: What Josh did a dozen years ago....
Television, as you know, is all about illusion -- the careful tending of an image that continually self-reinforces, week after week, season after season. The illusion becomes real in time -- so real to people who watch that they can't conceive of anything but the illusion. Fans of "The Bachelor" know this Velveeta cheese factory line of tendered roses and sweaty declarations of love isn't really about true romance -- but they're at least willing to withhold judgment until the divorce is announced in People a year or so later.
But when the illusion shifts -- or in '19's" case, shatters --they have to adjust. In most instances, viewers realize it's the illusion they were in love with all along, and the willing suspension of disbelief is no longer worth the trouble. "19 and Counting" no longer has any place to hide.
The show will go on. But the show will not go on.