Jon and Kate Gosselin came back to television last night for a fifth season of Jon & Kate Plus 8 on TLC, trying like crazy to keep up appearances and hold fast to the essential myth they've projected: We're just a normal suburban family with a bunch of matching children, and gosh, it's insane sometimes, but faith and love - and free merchandise and trips - will see us through!

Meanwhile, a growing audience ravenously awaits the couple's marital immolation in the burbs of Berks County, Pa. The schadenfreude circle of manufactured celebrity is nearly complete, as Jon & Kate (forget the pitiable eight) now becomes a very different TV-watching experience. It's as if a mean genie lived in the tube, making our worst wishes come true.

Jon stands accused of having an affair (which he denies, despite the usual telephoto-lens paparazzi evidence and the anonymous dog pile of quotes from acquaintances who've dished to Us Weekly, et al.), and while technically evasive on details, he is quite open about his overall unhappiness: He doesn't want to be a TV star. He never got to sow his oats in his 20s, as he was too busy submitting to the fertility specialist's beaker. He's a prisoner in the $1.1 million home that reality TV forced him into. He is withered by the succubus he married, a shell of a man, staring at the camera with dead eyes.

Kate, the unapologetic and sometimes deeply cutting nag, now tours the country, relentlessly promoting books of her feel-good, quasi-spiritual, best-selling parenting advice. She wears that bizarrely unattractive soccer-mom hair helmet (asymmetrical in front, spiky in back) that should be anyone's cue to give her wide berth.

The Gosselins' neighbors bad-mouth them to the press. Rumors recently went around that Kate was too close to her handsome bodyguard. From this bunker crouch, she recently poured her heart out to People: She doesn't know what to believe about Jon. She's not as bad a person as people say. The glare of celebrity is all too hot, but she's doing this for the children.

The children. This is what got us here - our strange preoccupation with people who have litters. A nation of former latchkey children, raised on Brady Bunch reruns and the unshakable feeling that bigger families were always the happiest, now asks: Can the Gosselins find peace?

Of course they can, but to do so, they would have to unplug the fame machine and give back the freebies: They've reportedly made millions from the show, starting with an estimated $25,000 to $75,000 fee per episode, plus DVD and book sales, plus speaking engagements. They've received everything from a tummy tuck (her) to hair plugs (him), and a variety of gratis trips and goodies.

Which means this is not a documentary in any true sense, nor is it reality. In searching for a word that describes Jon & Kate Plus 8, the subtlest forms of the word abuse spring to mind, which, alas, is why the show is so alluring.

The Gosselins have twin daughters (Madelyn and Cara), 8, and sextuplets (Alexis, Hannah, Leah, Aaden, Collin and Joel), whose fifth birthday is celebrated in the season premiere.

"I cannot believe they are 5," Kate tells the camera. The experience of starring in a TV show about her world has given her the horrifying validation of her brood's importance. "It gives me, like, a heart attack thinking about it. My youngest kids are 5 years old. It's not just a birthday; it's a celebration that we have made it five years. ... You never get their fifth birthday back again. It's huge."

We've all known (or read the blog of) an intense mother who cannot shut up about every banal detail of the household, who (as Kate does) surrounds herself in the minutiae of the mundane - the trips to Gymboree, the perky Bible verses on her kitchen wall. Of the unanswered mysteries in Jon & Kate Plus 8, the most disturbing mystery is why we are compelled to watch.

A typical episode serves up the sort of thing most of us would do well to avoid, especially if we already live it 24/7: temper tantrums over toys, screaming fits over sharing, toilet mishaps, minivan voyages to nowhere and back.

Jon & Kate Plus 8 debuted in 2007 as TLC shifted from home-makeover shows (we're a long way from the quaint voyeurism of Trading Spaces) to explorations of the domestic extreme. When it's not Jon & Kate Plus 8, it's 18 Kids and Counting, the epically backward (and eerily sweet) story of the pious, homeschooling Duggar clan in Arkansas, or Table for 12, which similarly chronicles the unremarkable Hayeses, a policeman and his wife who have two-upped the Gosselins in head count. This amounts to a lot of family time, which America, inundated with a decade or more of "family values" culture disputes, apparently hungers for. As to the relative ratings successes of TLC's "multiples" shows, prevailing theses involve some untreated, deeper loneliness in us, a fascination for the crowded house and the soothing effects of belonging to the pack.

Also there's the anachronistic, psychological freak show: Daddy is a sure-shooter and Mommy's body is a clown car; we have no purpose other than to eat, sleep, argue, reproduce, and grow. Perpetuation of the family gene pool is our only purpose, and all costs (material or emotional) are beside the point. Biologically this makes some animal sense, and it's no accident, at least on my dial, that these shows play out so close to the travails of the Serengeti.

Jon & Kate Plus 8 rarely takes time to show any activity that would suggest an intellectual or unselfish pursuit. The focus is on structured play, adhering to the schedule, wearing matching outfits, eating matching food. It's like a holiday update letter that never ends, in which the Gosselins are mainly seen consuming resources. (Hip to this, a recent Jon & Kate special focused on "going green.")

One look at Jon, and you know he's ready for it to end. TLC did not provide the usual preview episode to critics, as it surely scrambled to recut the season opener to address what everyone at the checkout line now knows.

I realize children are involved - and I await eight separate and contradictory memoirs, years from now - but the producers err seriously in trying to stick to the original, cutesy story line. This thing has evolved into something Greek, something Shakespearean, something corrosive that we in the chorus (example: see the Web site called Gosselins Without Pity) love to agonize and scream over. Jon & Kate Plus 8 should be avoided at all costs, which means the DVR should be set to capture every moment.