The reality TV juggernauts’ new series offers banality, drama, and fourth-wall-breaking — therapeutic escapism in a world that’s burning.
Ahead of the premiere of Hulu’s The Kardashians (the first project released under a multi-content deal with Disney), Kris Jenner, manager and matriarch of the famous family, reflected on the E! series that made them all household names. “It really wasn’t this master plan,” Jenner explained to Variety. “When I started Keeping Up With the Kardashians, we were so excited to have our own show and so appreciative of the opportunity.”
There may have been no “master plan,” but it’s long been obvious that Jenner and her most famous daughter, Kim Kardashian, were seeking to cash in on what was happening in the early aughts: the democratization (or cheapening) of celebrity and the growing demand for content centered around stars. To their credit, Jenner and her kin have done an exceptional job of using the medium of reality TV as a marketing tool to obtain sizable wealth via their ever-expanding list of business ventures. However, based on the later seasons of KUWTK, they seemed to have primarily outgrown the need for the show — or at least that iteration.
One imagines it was the apparent nine figures that lured them back to doing a reality show so soon, but even if the family unit has become ubiquitous in pop culture to the point where their collective social media followers — 1.2 billion — trounced their old show’s ratings, the reality is that a television show remains fundamental for them in terms of their fame. The Kardashians allows them to continue contextualizing the headlines they draw off-camera in addition to generating new ones from the show. And even better, they can use this to continue the marketing machine they built throughout so many seasons for Kim’s Skims shapewear, Kendall’s 818 Tequila, Khloé’s Good American jeans, Kylie’s makeup and beauty lines, and Kourtney’s lifestyle brand Poosh.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they have anything terribly new to offer in a show.
The Kardashians, which concluded its first season with the airing of its 10th episode last week, is delightfully familiar, if not a little boring. As backhanded a compliment as it sounds, it’s also the show’s strength. Kristin Baldwin wrote in her Entertainment Weekly review of the first two episodes, “It’s fine to enjoy their inane, soft-focus adventures as reality TV one-percenters.”
Is watching Kylie Jenner, who only makes an appearance here or there, doing everyday things like grocery shopping or using a drive-thru car wash with her mama appointment viewing? Or her sister, Kendall Jenner, explaining that as a hypochondriac, she likes to chill in a hyperbaric chamber while watching a Netflix show (she quickly corrects herself to plug Hulu)? No, but the dullness in select episodes works better now than it did a few years ago when KUWTK hit a wall just as the Kardashian-Jenner sisters became more hyper-aware of their fame and the scrutiny that comes with it. At the time, they seemed content with filler versus more in-depth looks at their private lives.
The rich have benefitted in so many ways from the pandemic, but in this instance, if your brain needs a break from a burning world, you might find it enjoyable to watch sleeker, profanity-laced banality from pretty wealthy people. I know I do.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t try to offer viewers any drama or details about their actual lives. In the premiere episode, we see a mortified and understandably pissed-off Kim fume when she finds out there’s a threat to release more footage from a sex tape with Ray J. In an emergency conference call to her lawyer, Marty Singer, Kim says, “I’m not going to go through this again. I have all the time, all the money, and all the resources to burn them all to the fucking ground.”
Kanye West eventually comes to save the day by returning the hard drive with the alleged footage to a grateful Kim (though, off-camera, Ray J has since said it didn’t go quite down as depicted). And while we don’t necessarily get the details about why that marriage ended, Kim does at least shed light on her new man, Pete Davidson. We even kind of get a cameo from him near the end of the season finale by way of a joke about who has seen her vagina the most: him or Kim’s audio supervisor, Paxy. We also see how as beautiful as her children are, they seem to stress her out like most moms dealing with that many kids under the age of 10.
And of course, the season finale itself is centered on Khloé Kardashian — or more pointedly, the father of her child, basketball star Tristan Thompson, who once again cheats on her, and, as we already learned, gives their daughter True an unintended sibling. Khloé looks as tired of that goofy man and his antics as anyone else who wants better for her, although it’s Kim who shows the most anger about the situation.
“I’m exhausted by taking the high road,” Kim says at a family meeting for Kholé that Khloé skips. Kim then looks directly into the camera and says, “If you don’t think I screenshot every single fucking thing.” It’s instances like those that make the show at least feel a little different than its predecessor.
What mainly separates Keeping Up with the Kardashians from The Kardashians is not so much the chyron changes and other sleeker production values found in the latter, but that the family decided to break the fourth wall. The best example of this is Kourtney — who is now involved in a very happy relationship with Travis Barker, who she describes as “the love of her life” — openly criticizing production for placing too much emphasis on how her ex, Scott Disick, is handling her engagement to Barker.
“Feeling left out and not being told anything is super hurtful,” Scott explained to Khloé a few days after it airs. “All I need is just to be acknowledged.”
Kourtney does not give a damn, telling her friend that she and then-fiancé Travis “had a lot of fun” filming the show but later feel “very annoyed” about the episode edits. “They’re, like, getting us involved with this drama — especially when I saw my engagement episode, editors or whoever, like, ‘Let’s get Kourtney, she’s the one chosen to be the drama while we’re filming our show,’” Kourtney explains.
The rich have benefitted in so many ways from the pandemic, but if your brain needs a break from a burning world, you might find it enjoyable to watch sleeker, profanity-laced banality from pretty wealthy people.
She’s right. I’m not sure why it has taken so many reality shows this long to stop acting as if the audience isn’t acutely aware that we are watching a production, but watching Kourtney give notes on camera is a lot more entertaining than her seeing her eat quail eggs in hopes of getting pregnant.
Their collective ability to drop pretense on The Kardashians makes the show feel fresh enough. Is that enough to reclaim past reality glory? I’m doubtful, but it’s undeniable that the public remains interested in their family unit and the characters that reach its orbit. The day after the show’s first season wrapped, Drake released a polygamy-themed music video for his single “Falling Back.” In its first 30 seconds, we see Tristan talking to Drake shortly before going to the altar — Tristan Thompson, the villain of The Kardashians finale, says, “Doesn’t feel right, we scrap it, we go home.”
Immediately, I wondered what Khloé, whose storyline for season one was tied to mainly trying to reunite with the man who had already humiliated her, made of his decision. Knowing how the family works, I plan to tune into season two to find out.