'19 Kids and Counting' Gets Stranger, Sadder

19 Kids and Counting premiered last night, and while it was mostly a typical Duggars episode, with eerily wholesome family activities and a dash of stomach-turning religiosity, there was a new grimness to the series that didn't sit right.

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The fifth season of TLC's beguiling, baffling, and oftentimes be-rage-ifying (just go with it) Quiverfull family series 19 Kids and Counting premiered last night, and while it was mostly a typical Duggars episode, with eerily wholesome family activities and a dash of stomach-turning religiosity, there was a new grimness to the series that didn't sit right.

The bulk of the episode was, again, pretty normal. There was a cutesy segment of the family planting fruit trees on their property, which was part activity for the kids and part attempt to create a food source for twenty people. The clan traveled to some sort of corn maze/petting zoo, where the little ones scrambled around and the bigger ones had fun in their own slightly less enthusiastic way. This is, at least on film, a defiantly wholesome family; these kids aren't constantly moaning about shopping malls and video games, cellphones and parties. Maybe that stuff factors in off-air, but in TLC's carefully edited version of the Duggars' world, all children, ages 2 to 18, are happy to be gamboling about together in a cornfield. That's fine! It's a little weird, of course, but why would anyone watch TLC if they didn't want something a little weird? (Even the network's current best show, Four Weddings, is a little weird.)

And then of course there was the infusion of religion that probably earns the series a fair number of looky-loos (ahem). Michelle Duggar, the broodmare who gave birth to this baseball team, was invited to speak to a ladies group at a nearby church, and though what we saw of the speech was mostly a series of platitudes about family and children and all that, there was a single shot that said much more -- the camera panned over a handout that Michelle brought to the event, and the content was pretty unsettling. TLC maybe included this shot for people like us, who of course paused it and advanced the frames to read as much of it as we could, and, whooo boy, was it unpleasant. It was all about how to make your husband happy in a marriage, which is of paramount importance to patriarch-dominated Quiverfull families. There were things about how wives shouldn't refuse their husbands' sexual advances, about how self-reliance is what kills marriages, about not stepping out of bounds in terms of what your responsibilities are as a wife (do too much and you emasculate him, you see). It was all reeeeally gross stuff that you never really hear the Duggars talking about on the show, but is absolutely the unspoken (on camera, at least) foundation of their family. (As evidenced by the fact that older boys are encouraged to pursue education and careers while their sisters remain indentured babysitters.) So that's why the rage-junkies watch this horrorshow, to get that electric adrenalin rush of anger at what a strange and backwards belief system these seemingly cheery and wholesome creatures actually operate under.

So, yes, it was a typical Duggar outing last night, until the last segment, which involved wife Michelle and husband Jim Bob going to the doctor to hear the heartbeat of their upcoming 20th child. In the scene, the doctor couldn't find the heartbeat on the Doppler monitor, so there was a scary bit of tension, but then she found the baby on the sonogram and it was a happy moment of relief. Until, of course, one remembered that Michelle eventually lost the baby, a girl they named Jubilee Shalom. Yeesh. That seems awfully grim for this typically only glancingly serious show. Of course it's important to show the effects of giving birth to 19 children, to confront the frustrating and avoidable risks of practicing this kind of "procreate first, ask questions never" family management technique. So that makes it worthwhile. And I'm sure for the Duggars it's important to show the courage and conviction of their faith in the face of loss. But the knowing that it's going to happen, the bleak procedural inevitability of it, is akin to the death march of the recent Real Housewives of Beverly Hills season, in which the specter of a future suicide loomed over the proceedings. It seems like probably the worst way to handle this kind of thing.

The producers presumably had discussions about how to best handle this situation, and it seems they've chosen the most sensationalistic way rather than the most sensitive. The cruelty alone of the show title ending with "...and Counting" is enough to make you cringe. But to then stage a nervous yet ultimately happy doctor's visit at the end of the first episode, as if the season is looking toward new promise, when of course it's not, feels a bit beyond the pale. It feels like they're trying to trick viewers who aren't aware of what happened, hook 'em in with hope and them slam 'em down with a twist at the end. Earlier in the episode they showed Michelle exercising on a treadmill and talking about how she's the healthiest she's ever been while pregnant. Come on, really? You couldn't edit that out? It all seems trivial and cruel and wholly unnecessary for a show like this. Just be up front with the audience. Even just a little prologue at the beginning of the episode explaining what happened would cushion the blow a bit.

(Maybe the producers just assumed everyone already knew, but even if that's the case, it's still upsetting television. It's a strange kind of reality phenomenon, knowing the outcome of a particular season before it airs because of the internet. In certain cases — Snooki gets arrested! Oh, no! — it's fine, it's future as promo. But in cases like this one, it casts a gloomy pall over everything that makes us honestly not terribly interested in watching the rest of the season. Why would we want to watch doctors visits and the other kids getting excited and the parents getting excited and all that, all the while knowing that it ends like it does?)

We're not saying the miscarriage shouldn't be dealt with or that the hope leading to fallout shouldn't be shown, but it probably shouldn't factor into the season as some kind of narrative surprise. We like to be horrified by 19 Kids and Counting, but not like that. The show is a fun jaw-dropper when a courting ritual begins (oh, god it's creepy) or they visit another Quiverfull family (also creepy, also a potential for courting), but an eventual miscarriage treated something like a suspense thriller feels like a vast overstep on the producers' part. Something so serious deserves proper treatment, a well-considered setting and context, and simply slyly mixing it in with the typical meat of the series, with all its 4-H freakshow vibe, is certainly not anything close to that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.