By Ken Tucker
August 17, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT

It’s gotten so weird: magazines and newspapers are full of tales of Kate Gosselin in tears and enraged at her wayward husband; Jon is seen out clubbing and hugging girls a decade younger than he is. And then you turn on Jon & Kate Plus 8 only to see, this week, Kate having mommy-time with three of her boys on a North Carolina battleship, while Jon stuck close to Pennsylvania home, taking the two eldest, twins Mady and Cara, to an arcade to climb ropes and ride go-karts.

Me, I choose to stay away from a lot of the tabloid stuff and watch what I always enjoy: the kids and their enjoyment. Fortunately for Aaden, Collin, and Joel, they’re still young enough to ignore what Kate referred to as “our little disruptive paparazzi friends,” who started snapping pix of the kids scampering up and down the USS North Carolina. The boys concentrated their five year-old muscles on climbing iron stairways while wearing sailor hats that made them look like mini-Popeyes. It all looked like fun.

Meanwhile, Jon’s brief, drab sequences were like those depressing weekends-with-divorced-dad from which novelists like John Updike and Richard Ford have made art. Jon & Kate, however, could only present dreary banality. We know from years of watching that Mady has always been a little grump (her bad mood didn’t start with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage), but her whiny, mopey, “I don’t even know what I wanna do” refrain has rendered her, I am afraid, the series’ perpetual downer. Tattoos and goth make-up are in her near-future.

Cara, by contrast, is a plucky, cheerful kid, eager to try anything, smiling hopefully at her dad. Which is depressing now in its own way, given the fact that she has a dad who says to the camera, “I hadn’t seen [the girls] in a really long time.” Whose fault is that, Jon?

Even Kate’s happy scenes were tinged with melancholy irony. When one child said, in his little-boy way, “When I grow up I’m gonna be a bad guy!” Kate responded, “No bad guys in my world.”

Well, she can dream, can’t she?

Did you watch Jon & Kate this week? What did you think?