Jennifer Armstrong
June 05, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

On the season premiere of TLC hit Jon & Kate Plus Eight, Jon Gosselin — a 32-year-old former IT specialist who agreed, back in 2007, to star in a reality show about how he and wife Kate deal with raising sextuplets and twins — looks like a broken man. Slouched on a love seat, he answers questions from an off-camera producer about relentless tabloid allegations of infidelity in his marriage. At one point, in a depressed monotone, he offers this complaint: ”I did not sign up for the public scrutiny.” Of course, that’s exactly what the Gosselins did — and now that said scrutiny is at its most intense, the couple and TLC are seeing a huge payoff: 9.8 million viewers watched the season 5 debut, more than doubling the series’ previous ratings high. Hang in there, Jon: only 36 more contractually obligated episodes to go.

Nearly a decade after Survivor kicked off the unscripted-television craze, reality suddenly seems harsher than ever. The thrill of instant fame and a respite from unglamorous anonymity is still as strong a lure as it was in 2000, but the parasitic relationship between the genre and our paparazzosphere culture devours participants that much faster. Jon and Kate’s chicken-and-egg domestic strife — did the reality show just expose their troubles, or was it the cause? — continues. And as their fame mounts, so do their problems: The Pennsylvania labor department is investigating the show for possible child-labor-law violations. (Heads up to Eyeworks, the company that recently signed a reality show deal with Nadya ”Octomom” Suleman.) Frumpy British songstress Susan Boyle, meanwhile, has paid a heavy personal price ever since she entered Britain’s Got Talent; her emotional breakdown has soured the Cinderella story that captivated the world.

While the squirm-inducing tales keep coming, TV’s most maligned genre does have respectable roots (think PBS’ intimate 1973 documentary American Family). For some of this latest mess, we can actually blame Survivor — that is, we can blame it for being too good. The CBS series’ adventure-meets-game-show construct intrigued us with its soapy, psychological gameplay — and, of course, a dash of sensationalism (see: bug-eating challenges). The next year, however, the bug-centric gross-outs became the main event with NBC’s low-rent hit Fear Factor — and thus the one-upmanship began. From then on, every successful reality franchise bred a host of imitators with increasingly lower standards and higher stakes. (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire begat Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?; The Bachelor begat Joe Millionaire; America’s Next Top Model begat The Swan.)

But it’s not just competition shows that push the boundaries of good taste. When The Osbournes launched in 2002, it provided a fun peek at the banality of everyday celebrity life — and revived Ozzy’s career in the process. Soon networks were searching for their own fading stars, and there was no shortage of volunteers, even as the results turned ugly. Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson’s marriage dissolved in the Newlyweds spotlight, Anna Nicole Smith unraveled on E!, and today once-famous addicts trade their privacy for a spot on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab. Checking in for season 3: Tom Sizemore and Dennis Rodman, among others.

Plenty of ”real” people also want a piece of this postmillennial brand of celebrity. Of course, these folks know they have to be ”characters” to grab the ratings — so they become executive producers of their own lives. Two years ago, Hills viewership spiked when Spencer Pratt, the opportunistic archenemy of star Lauren Conrad, started a false rumor that she had made a sex tape. Conrad has since left the show to write teen novels (about, wouldn’t you know it, a girl who stars in a reality show), while Pratt has a thriving career as a go-to Machiavellian reality TV villain; he and wife Heidi Montag recently grabbed headlines by walking off NBC’s I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! Fortunately for MTV, new Hills star Kristin Cavallari — who started her reality career on 2004’s Laguna Beach — also knows the drill. As she explained to EW last month, ”Drama sells.” It’s a lesson Jon Gosselin, perhaps, wishes he had learned earlier. ”This is a different kind of career,” he mused on the Jon & Kate season premiere. ”Because this is your life and your career.”

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