Jon and Kate Gosselin

They’re reality TV’s cuddliest family, but increasingly noisy critics allege that Berks County’s Gosselins — and their show, Jon & Kate Plus 8 — aren’t all they appear to be

Then, in September 2005, the Discovery Health cable channel broadcast a one-hour special on the family, and followed up with another less than a year later. Boffo ratings led to a regular series in April 2007 (it later moved to TLC), after the Gosselins had relocated to a bigger house in Elizabethtown, 10 miles south of Hershey. The family seemed startlingly normal, or as normal as one could with a daycare’s load of children. The sextuplets were matchlessly cute — six quarter-Korean two-year-olds, three boys, three girls, all healthy, bubbly, and in TV-ready coordinating outfits, bookended by two plucky six-year-old sisters. Episodes chronicling even the most ordinary days didn’t disappoint: Jon and Kate lose Aaden in a corn maze! Hannah poops in her pants! Alexis throws a tantrum in the dentist’s chair! As Jon and Kate bickered and buckled under the stress of their teeming flock, riveted women across the country formed an instant bond, drawn to their realness. Kate talked about clipping coupons and stretching a dollar, and wore sweatshirts and little makeup; Jon worked full-time, and his mellow, youthful mien complemented his wife’s no-nonsense demeanor. Their challenges appeared genuine and many, and Kate became an inspiration to stressed-out moms who, after watching, could summon a bit more courage — If she can do it with eight, I can handle mine.

And so we fell in love. It was an easy love. Faced with the snake pit of bad-for-you television, why not sit back and enjoy the good clean fun of Jon and Kate and their eight? “This show is so much more than adorable (and often isn’t adorable at all, depending on how many Gosselins are having meltdowns in a given episode),” gushed Entertainment Weekly. “No, what makes J&K so fascinating are the challenges, which are beyond anything Survivor or The Amazing Race could dream up.” By 2008, some episodes were getting as many as three million viewers, a tsunami of eyeballs in cable. The kids were unequivocally adorable, and watching them grow was wholesome and guiltless. Or was it?

TODAY THE TWINS are eight and the sextuplets four, but Jon and Kate actually look younger than when the show began, more camera-friendly and polished. They’ve had their teeth whitened; Jon’s been working out and got a (free) hair transplant. The Gosselins have turned up on Oprah and Good Morning America, and inside the pages of In Touch Weekly and People. The show is TLC’s most popular series.