I will admit it. I am a huge, huge sucker for TLC "family" shows. I've written before about the Duggars, but it's not just them. I've not watched a ton of the Gosslins (Jon & Kate Plus Eight), but I did spend most of one day watching a marathon of their second season. And I stop on that channel when they are on now. More than the others, though, I love, love, love the Roloffs (Little People, Big World).
Obviously, these are popular shows, so I'm not alone in watching them. The thing is, unlike much of the rest of the American viewing audience, I've never really been into reality television. I stopped watching Survivor after the first season (and I didn't like it all that much then), and never watched any of the similar shows. I recently saw my very first episode of American Idol (and I don't see myself watching another one). I just don't like those shows.
So what makes these family shows on TLC different? Why, when reality television has been irritating me for like ten years, can I not get enough of them?
I think it has a lot to do with the way TLC makes television versus the way the networks who have run the majority of the more popular reality shows do it. The TLC shows don't have a contest aspect. The folks featured are families, they aren't competitors. And that underlying feeling you have when watching shows like American Idol, that you are watching someone else's humiliation for entertainment, isn't there. Instead, you are watching people who, more or less, seem to be average.
Of course, they aren't average. If they were, they wouldn't be on TV. The Duggars have 18 kids. The Gosslins have eight, and six of them were born at the same time. And the Roloffs are little people, as is one of their four children. I think, actually, this is one of the reasons I like LPBW even more than the other shows--other than being little people, which isn't really the point of the show most of the time, the Roloffs are pretty normal. Partially they seem normal to me because they live near where I'm from, but it's something beyond that, as well. They aren't well-dressed, they have bad skin, they don't speak all that well--they fuck up and they talk about it and they fight and they laugh and they just seem like a really nice family to me.
The three TLC families have quite a bit in common: though the difference between 18 and 4 is pretty large, they all have lots of kids; all three shows center around families and family life; etc. Another thing they all have in common, though, that is a bit (though only a bit...) less obvious is that all three families are Christian.
Obviously, the Duggars are Christian. Their fundamentalist Christianity is the force that shapes their lives, and nothing about their show ever gets far from that. The Gosslins and the Roloffs are less overt, but both shows feature the families going to church, both sets of parents mention God when they are interviewed, the Roloff kids go to Christian private school, etc. I wonder if that's not part of what I find so fascinating about these shows--the image they present of serious Christians, and the spectrum they represent (it's a long way from upstanding patriarch Jim Bob Duggar to hairbrained schemer Matt Roloff).
Sometimes, the TLC family shows take me back to the first reality show I remember watching--MTV's Real World. Not the later season, in which strange contests and challenged and plots were imposed, but the original New York season, where it was just divergent people living together and trying to get along. I loved that show, and I loved it mostly because it was about people I could both recognize as real and recognize as not a damn thing like me. The same is true of all of the TLC families. Whether I like them as the characters of theirselves they are playing or not, I can recognize them. And maybe that's part of what makes good TV, from family-friendly reality TV to sci-fi to cop dramas--being to recognize something familiar in characters who are living lives completely different that ours?