TLC yanked “19 Kids and Counting” from its schedule in May, then cancelled it two months later. The Duggar family, however, has clearly become as attached to living their lives on TV as the Discovery-owned network was to having them on its schedule. Enter “Jill & Jessa: Counting On,” a trio of specials that kicked off Sunday, ostensibly focusing on two of the Duggar daughters, but also offering a parade of direct-to-camera interviews with their siblings. Oddly constructed, these programs clearly mark a trial balloon on whether the lucrative TLC-Duggar made-for-TV marriage can be saved.
For those who need a refresher course, a 12-year-old police report was made public that revealed Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s son, Josh, had molested five girls, including his sisters, as a teenager. A subsequent disclosure – as part of the Ashley Madison hack – prompted Josh to confess having extramarital affairs and an addiction to pornography.
Because of the Duggars’ forays into conservative politics, including Josh’s work for the Family Research Council, there was no shortage of schadenfreude in the news and Duggar’s admission of hypocrisy. But however embarrassing all this might have been to the family, the Duggars have become big business, to the point where Discovery had to take a write-down for the “content impairment charge” associated with cancelling “19 Kids.”
All that provides a backdrop to the first of the three specials, which suffered from a kind of conspicuous schizophrenia. While all of the interactions were focused on big and happy events in Jill and Jessa’s lives – the former’s move to Central America with her husband Derick, the latter preparing to have a baby with her spouse, Ben – the direct-to-camera interviews all seemed to begin with some variation of the question, “So what have the last four months been like for you?”
Not surprisingly, the responses – not just from Jill and Jessa, but also, spaced throughout the 90-minute telecast, siblings Jinger, Joy, Jana, John David, Joseph and Josiah – reflected surprise, hurt, disappointment, and an occasional glimpse of thinly veiled hostility toward the media. But the mood swings were betrayed, almost comically, by the music: Jaunty banjo riffs when the sisters went out to shop for baby gear, alternating with maudlin piano strains when they addressed those painful last four months.
Noticeably absent, meanwhile, were parents Jim Bob and Michelle, who were seen briefly in the tease for next week’s installment, which promises an interview with Josh’s wife, Anna. From that perspective, this episode almost felt like an appetizer – a taste of the scandal, with the main course yet to come.
The inevitable conclusion, after watching a program TLC failed to make available in advance, was that everyone here is trying to have it both ways. Like so many participants in reality shows, the Duggars can lament the intrusions into their privacy, while leveraging their fame – and Josh’s notoriety – through this more carefully controlled format. And TLC can try to take the high road by canceling “19 Kids,” only to further milk the franchise by essentially reviving it during this pre-holiday window — under a different name that, naturally, still includes “Counting” in the title.
Then again, being famous, and on TV, can be another kind of addiction. And once an audience has bought into a property like “19 Kids,” scandal, whatever the personal toll, is just another form of promotion. At least, that’s the modern media reality that TLC appears to be counting on.