You probably heard by now, TLC has ordered a full season of Jill and Jessa: Counting On. If you didn’t know, I’m sorry to ruin your day. (But are you really that surprised? I did tell you this could happen and be successful.) But do not dismiss TLC’s continued commitment to the Duggars 2.0; this family and every nuanced aspect of their brand matters more than ever before.
Perhaps you have caught on to the extreme conservatism (and extreme progressivism for that matter) holding the United States hostage right now. The Duggars, as public evangelicals whose sole purpose is to normalize fundamentalist Christianity, are contributors to and a byproduct of the public sphere currently reshaping American politics and ideologies. Beyond that, as I’ve written before, 19 Kids and Counting and now Jill and Jessa: Counting On are part of a larger, complex media system. As much as you might hate the Duggars’ presence, they’re sticking around for a reason.
Before Josh Duggar’s sexual molestation scandal, a Duggars 2.0 spinoff seemed imminent and even a smart strategy for Discovery. After 10 years of recycled plot lines, 19 Kids had become stale and predictable. Every aspect of their lives was dictated by outdated gender norms. The Duggars also no longer attempted to hide their extremism in plain sight. Josh Duggar’s position with the Family Research Council as well as the family’s active presence on social media made their conservative family values public (and thus opened for criticism). Endless news coverage in People further blurred the lines between reality television and, well, reality. But Jill and Jessa’s respective wedding specials, which were the highest rated programming in TLC history, showed no end to the Duggar enterprise. As long as the Duggar family was still the main attraction, a Duggars 2.0 spinoff was more than feasible.
What TLC and Discovery could not predict was the Duggar’s many lies becoming public. The backlash and subsequent cancellation of TLC’s highest rated and most profitable show sent the network scrambling. 19 Kids’ cancellation cost Discovery $19 million. By he end of summer 2015, TLC needed the Duggars to bankroll the network and the Duggars needed TLC to save their brand. (Why else would the Duggar daughters appear on TLC’s Breaking the Silence documentary?)
Jill and Jessa: Counting On was initially conceived as a three-part special that aired in December. It chronicled the recent developments in the Duggar family since the scandal. Jill and her family move to Central America for mission work. Jessa and husband Ben welcome their first child. Like 19 Kids, it depicts mundane family life. They pray, prepare meals and go shopping. Jill and Jessa is capped off with a nice dramatic home birth.
These episodes also effectively clean up Josh Duggar’s mess. So not only are the Duggar atoning for their brother but they are also asking audiences (and the network, to a greater extent) for one more chance. Without Jim Bob and Michelle lurking in the background, the Duggars 2.0 are more frank about their brother’s actions than ever imaginable on an average episode of 19 Kids. (Keep in mind, their comments are still reserved, carefully worded and without details. It is presumed that if you’re watching, you know what happened.) Josh’s wife Anna also appears and she dutifully plays the part of the forgiving Christian wife. My main takeaways from these episodes was that Jill and Jessa, the new stars of the Duggar universe, did not seem equipped to carry their own show. Without a zillion Duggars in the background, they are noticeably young, ill-prepared and… boring.
Despite my reservations, it is evident by now that TLC always intended for the Duggars to return. In January, TLC executive vice president and general manager Nancy Daniels discussed the ramifications of the Duggar scandal. “We are still considering doing more but haven’t made a decision yet,” was all she offered the Duggar’s future at the time. Then a week ago, InTouch shared grainy photos of the Duggars’ filming. Once I saw those pictures, I knew a new Duggar’s show was inevitable.
So we have arrived at this moment. Not only is there a new series but there is also a new kind of Duggars. (It’s almost as if they took a page out of the Cousin Amy playbook.)
In the trailer for Jill and Jessa: Counting On, the Duggars 2.0 are more defiant and united than ever. Perhaps because the Duggar kids finally aren’t constrained by the regimented rules of their upbringing. As Jessa narrates in the trailer, the scandal still follows them but they are moving forward as family. This strategy reinforces a narrative about the strength of Christian family values in times of crisis.
Some highlights from the trailer include Joy, siting on a backwards chair.
Jessa got bangs, which People compares them to Kate Middleton’s. (Bless you, People.)
They also jump and Jessa presents her Simba!
The tonal shift from 19 Kids to the Counting On special to this new series is striking. They seem fun, open and happy. Now that the family has apologized (while remaining highly rated), there is no stopping the Duggars.
Most importantly, as we saw on 19 Kids, the relationships between the Duggar women, as sisters, wives and now mothers, will drive most narratives. This is because the Duggars are a family of infinite contradictions. They are public evangelical and followers of a patriarchal religion. Yet every public sphere crafted and maintained throughout their multiple series is predominantly female.
Nonetheless it’s likely the show’s format won’t dramatically differ from 19 Kids. Jim Bob and Michelle will come by from time to time. All those other Duggars whose names you still don’t know will be around too. Josh’s absence will never be mentioned, although his wife and children will be nearby. The family will continue with trips to thrift stores and church. There will be more courtships, weddings and babies. Audiences will continue to tune in and TLC will continue to profit.
Welcome to the Duggars 2.0. It’s going to be a wild ride.