The Kardashians are back! But did they ever really go away?

The family’s latest reality show is a relic of the genre they basically made but remains a rich text for modern celebrity

The eulogizing began as soon as the Kardashian-Jenner family announced the end of their flagship reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK), after 14 years in 2020. Or, more accurately, the memorializing – the attempts to take stock of the field-warping influence that America’s unofficial royal family had on the laws of celebrity, beauty, fashion and self-monetization in the 2010s. The original show was the Kardashians’ rocket to an unfathomable stratosphere of wealth, fame and influence, the vehicle through which a wealthy but strident Hollywood-adjacent clan once best known for their late father and a sex tape self-promoted and content-generated their way to the epitome of the social media celebrity order.

By the time it ended in spring of last year, the family had seemingly outgrown the reality TV format they had basically created in their image. Why bother face-tuning six-month-old drama for TV when you can push the narrative immediately on your phone? Were there any rungs on the fame ladder left to climb?

Apparently, yes. Of course the “for better or for worse” paeans to KUWTK’s end have become accessories to the start of something new: The Kardashians, the family’s new reality show on Hulu, born from a deal worth an estimated $100m. (The family now means: Kris, Kourtney, Kim and Khloé Kardashian, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner, as well as their numerous children and current or ex romantic partners. Rob Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner are not involved.) The latest cog in the Kardashian-Jenner mega-corporation is a sleeker, cannier version of the original rooted in the same propagandistic DNA though, in the only two 45-minute episodes made available to critics, said narrative spinning seems half-heartedly applied.

It’s easy to consume the show but difficult to process The Kardashians. The new show is relatively trivial – Kourtney’s ex Scott Disick stressed about not getting invited to a barbecue, Kim stressed about hosting SNL last October, Khloé stressed about appearing on James Corden, I stressed about their Instagram faces and cyborg bodies in motion. But the family, especially Kim, is at this point something like a cultural hyperobject – an idea too big, suffusive and multifaceted to fully comprehend or describe.

Since KUTWK premiered in 2007, the Kardashians have become the avatars and drivers of American culture on innumerable fronts, among them: impossible beauty standards, the aesthetic of an entire dominant platform (Instagram), the democratized accessibility of fame, image manipulation (how many times have they denied blatant photo-shopping and cosmetic alterations?), the unreality of reality TV, the relentless drive to turn everything into profit, the currency of undefeated shamelessness. The family – again, Kim especially – have made their name on their queasy proximity to and appropriation of blackness. As the White Negroes author Lauren Michele Jackson argued, Kim, an Armenian American, has a singular talent for metachrosis – the ability to change color. She occupies a “cherished place in the American racial imagination that, combined with wealth, prevents contact with the deathly effects (and melancholic affects) of brownness in this country while reaping the exoticism of not-quite whiteness”.

All of this buoys and buffets the show, which in and of itself is as bland as their monochrome ath-leisure suits and glossy nude lips. The Kardashians, executive-produced by Ben Winston (who also EPs The Late Late Show with James Corden – note the episode 2 crossover), opens as if on a hang glider. The camera zooms around their colossal, vacuous homes in birth order, except for the conclusion: Kim, arguably the reason they ever got a reality show in the first place, the Kardashian with access to the highest echelons of celebrity, and not so subtly the new show’s lodestar.

KUWTK was always an expression of shrewd, uncanny, often tasteless manufacturing, and it continues to be here. The storylines are already public knowledge, and filtered here for barely titillating, but not overly revealing, effect. Kourtney is in love with Travis Barker and trying for a fourth child. Kim is prepping for SNL and, she proudly notes, studying for the California “baby bar” exam. Khloé is still friends with Scott, who is still not over Kourtney, and still defending ex Tristan Thompson. Consummate mom-ager Kris keeps showing up to check on things. (Kendall and Kylie are almost entirely absent.) There are a lot of skintight bodysuits and large dark sunglasses.

Kim Kardashian at the Los Angeles premiere Of The Kardashians
Kim Kardashian at the Los Angeles premiere Of The Kardashians. Photograph: Image Press Agency/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

The show was never “good”, in a moral sense, nor was it seamless, but it’s always a very rich text. There are few things more representative of American capitalism and culture than an already rich family who hustled their proximity to fame into a self-generating content well of living advertisements. (I can’t keep track of the numerous brands and dubious businesses, but safe to say they’re in every scene of the new show.) The Kardashians are the proto-influencers, blurring the lines of personal and professional in the name of promotion and profit. The fakeness of the reality show – and it’s a shrug to note the on-screen conversations here are clearly nipped and tucked for television – has always been beside the point. Kardashian TV is more like improv – attuned and curated versions of themselves, from people so used to being on camera they muse about it repeatedly while on new cameras.

The richest part of the new Hulu show is witnessing snippets of their now gravitational celebrity orbit, however mediated – the familiarity with which famous performers from James Corden to Amy Schumer enter and exit the screen. Schumer advises Kim on her SNL monologue with actual pushback to her jokes (one that is sharper than you’d expect). There’s something interesting, in a work-porn adjacent way, in watching Kim name-drop “Dave” (Chappelle) for monologue advice or request SNL booker (and Ben Affleck ex) Lindsey Shookus for last-minute line changes to spare the unstable Kanye. Interesting and somewhat revulsive, too, to see James Corden’s hype-man advise Khloé to ignore social media – this, for a woman who has gaslit followers on her manipulated body and images and participated in her own fair share of online bullying.

These asides stick the most because they hint both at the celebrity ecosystems whose rupture the Kardashians rode and remade, and the casualness with which the ultra-famous go about their well-oiled days. Nothing has changed and yet everything is different now, elevated. The Kardashians have stuck together. Though the new show feels, in structure and six-month-old content, like a recent relic, no doubt people will be watching.

  • The Kardashians streams on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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