A scene from the Lifetime Television series "Coming Home." (Lifetime Television/ )
If a producer could dream up the ideal TV show, it would probably look something like this: a lot of drama, a heroic storyline, a bit of reality, a famous host and a set of characters about to receive the surprise of their lives. That’s the formula for TV’s latest phenomenon: surprise reunions between returning service members and their families. Two shows that debuted this year — “Coming Home” on Lifetime and “Surprise Homecoming” on TLC — engineer surprise reunions and capture tearful moments on camera.
But mental health experts say the surprise reunions aren’t necessarily happy and healthy beneath the surface.
They obscure the possibility that children are caught in a jumble of emotions, including sorrow resulting from the separation and lingering confusion over why the parent left. The presence of an audience and TV cameras, the experts say, may add pressure to an already overwhelming moment.
For decades, research has shown that children with deployed military parents suffer higher levels of anxiety and emotional problems than their peers in nonmilitary families. But a 2010 study uncovered a less obvious point: After the homecomings, spouses’ anxiety returned to normal, but children’s remained high. For one-third, it was “clinically significant,” meaning severe enough to warrant attention from a professional.
Catherine Mogil, clinical psychologist with UCLA’s FOCUS project, which assists military families, worked on the study. She says the reason for kids’ persistent anxiety isn’t clear, but military kids face frightening questions — could something terrible happen? — that they normally wouldn’t face until they’re older.
When you surprise anxious kids in front of TV cameras, she says, it’s hard to predict the results. “Surprises, even when positive, can be challenging and really emotionally laden for them,” Mogil says.
Catherine Meyers, executive producer of “Surprise Homecoming,” and Tom Forman, chief executive of RelativityReal, which produces “Coming Home,” both say they relied on parents’ assessments of their kids’ ability to handle the surprise.
“This is not a show about sticking cameras in on people’s personal moments when they’re not wanted,” Forman says, adding that the show tries to feature people who were already planning surprises. “We are invited in by moms and dads who want to share this moment with the country, who are incredibly proud of their service both at home and abroad, and who believe their kids are going to have an unbelievably fun day and look back on this as the best home movies they’ve ever shot.”
The problem is that parents may not know what their kids feel, Mogil says. Parents often try to protect children by not discussing frightening or confusing thoughts. And kids may not volunteer their fears because they’re trying to protect their parents. “The kids, sometimes they’re keeping it all in,” Mogil says.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Allen Hughes of Suffolk, Va., surprised his 12-year-old daughter, Holly, now 13, on “Coming Home” after he spent seven months on an aircraft carrier. Holly thought she was being interviewed for a special about military families, and the producers had arranged for her to perform a violin solo at a concert with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. After she played, the show’s host — Matt Rogers, a former “American Idol” contestant — announced Holly’s father.
“I was pretty much standing there, mouth open, frozen with shock,” Holly says. “I was like, ‘Is it really him?’ ”
The cameras relay everything: a puzzled smile as Holly adjusts her glasses, a gasp when she sees her father, urgency as she races to him across the stage. The microphones capture their sobs, and the heart-rending interviews show — and inspire — more tears when Holly and her father discuss the moment.
Hughes says the tears represented relief. “Just the relief that it’s finally over. I was finally back. I finally had Holly in my arms. And for her, she finally had her dad back.”
It may be impossible to watch this reunion, or the dozens like it, without being incredibly moved by all of it: the bonds of love, the anguish, the sacrifice and the unfairness of separation. Both Forman and Meyers say they created these shows for the same reason: They and their colleagues cried while watching popular YouTube videos of surprise reunions that seemed to bring families resolution.
“I think everybody likes being reminded that there’s a happy ending to many of these stories,” Forman says.
The reality, though, is that many service members will be deployed again. And while many veterans and families adjust well, the military population, in general, faces troubles that begin when the troops return: higher rates of divorce, unemployment and homelessness than nonveterans; mental health issues; and the difficulty of reconciling profound wartime experiences with the mundaneness of daily life.