We’re now four episodes into The Kardashiansthe Frankensteined reanimation of the Kardashian-Jenner reality television empire that began with Keeping up with The Kardashians in 2007. And like the titular monster at the heart of Mary Shelley’s novel, it’s its own sentient beast that’s forever oscillating between hilariously clumsy missteps and egregious crimes toward humanity.
The series premiere — a term I use very loosely since their last show went dark less than one year before the absurdly glossy Hulu counterpart debuted — opened with an astonishingly long drone shot through the richest and most exclusive parts of Los Angeles that puts Michael Bay’s directing work in Ambulance to shame. One by one, we’re treated to a nauseating and motion-smoothed check-in on The Femmepire to see what each Kardashian and Jenner is up to now, and it plays like we’re tallying up millions. There may as well have been a net worth total ticking up in the corner of the screen for the first five minutes.
Kourtney emerges onto one of the many balconies of her massive estate. Khloé takes a call amidst her twentieth home renovation of the last decade. Kendall gives herself a sound bath in her backyard the size of a public park. Kris closes a deal in her office on the other side of the Kylie Cosmetics warehouse, where Kylie presides over a shoot. Kim wraps up her own photo session at the SKIMS offices and peels out of the studio in a car that costs more than the combined median rent of every city in the country. In short, not a thing has changed.
But everything has changed since the Kardashians first rode Kris Jenner’s one-woman-made wave onto the scene in the late aughts. The world seems like a much darker place now that the atrocities of the everyday are amplified by social media, and the Kardashians have reached a point of such enormous, unfathomable wealth that their presence in the world of reality television no longer feels like escapism but rather a well-manicured middle finger to the rest of us as we attempt to outrun the latest fireballs of horror flung at us daily.
This was never more glaringly evident than the moment on Monday evening when tweets about Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s infamous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President ”dress to the Met Gala were interspersed with reactions to the Supreme Court’s draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. This entire current Kardashian era feels like the moment in the original series when Kim lost her diamond earring in the ocean, to which Kourtney then responded, “Kim, there’s people that are dying” —only multiplied by one hundred after each member of the family took turns hitting the slay button.
Watching these billionaires go about their decidedly mundane lives is not just boring, it’s verging on offensive. To counteract that, the Kardashians have had to slap a new layer of polish over the convoluted nature of their reality television personas. It has somehow made them more watchable than ever.
If Keeping Up with the Kardashians allowed for a wish-fulfillment viewing experience as audiences watched all of the exorbitant wealth and privileges of fame that only multiplied as the years went on, then The Kardashians exists as more of a new-wave surrealist study of those things.
What is life like when you reach a point of such total cultural saturation, with more money than you could ever dream of and every experience you could possibly imagine at your fingertips? Pretty goddamn boring — and that’s what’s so compelling. Call it the Jeanne Dielman effect. And I’ll accept the stones for comparing The Kardashians to a beloved 1975 Belgian arthouse film in a second. Hear me out first!
There remain so many people decrying the Kardashian-Jenner family as untalented, which is simply untrue. They’re the most talented people in showbiz. You just have to know how to spot it.
Are they churning out irresistible music or gobsmacking film performances? No, of course not — though I so desperately wish Kim would release another horrific earworm of a song after she invented hyperpop and that Kourtney would step foot onto another soap opera set. Their talents lie in their savvy business-mindedness, of course, but they also exist in moments of pure absurdity. These women are so separated from public consciousness that they simply do not understand how real life works.
In the premiere, Kim threatened to sue Robloxa game platform that allows users to create highly customized worlds, for some one-off joke of a design in the game that a user made about unreleased footage from her sex tape.
While no one could fault her for wanting to put an end to the revenge porn narrative that followed her at the beginning of her career, any average person would simply understand that that’s just some dumb joke online. No one has any additional footage.
But not Kim! By the end of the first episode, she’s asserting that she’ll “burn them all down.” And by the third episode, she has spun herself into such a mess that her ex-husband, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, has retrieved a computer from Ray J’s home (under suspicious circumstances that are never explained) and verified that the only other footage of Kim from the tape is some B-roll of her at a dinner. The lengths they’ll go to for absolutely nothing are hysterical. This show, somehow, has charm oozing from every frame.
So much of that charm comes from their brilliant tactic of remaining just as vulnerable on camera as they want to be. Nothing gets past the edit bay without their approval — all six of the primary Kardashian-Jenner women are listed as producers on the series — but it would be impossible for a Kardashian reboot to be successful if they refused to address some of the thirty different controversies. they’re enveloped in at any given moment: Kim’s sex tape pursuit, Khloé’s (snooze-worthy) couples therapy with Tristan Thompson, Kim’s post-SNL relationship with Pete Davidson and ongoing divorce drama with Ye, the works.
And then something will happen that startles me. It pulls me out of their manicured, plastic-perfection world and reminds me that this is all deeply orchestrated, perhaps more than ever before. They’ve just gotten better at hiding it.
There is suspiciously less footage of Kylie Jenner, nearly-confirming rumors that her storyline was heavily edited after the Astroworld tragedy late last year. There are scenes that feel as if they were rehearsed days before, like when a loyal army of Kim’s glam minions gathers around to heap praise on her after her hosting gig on SNL. Or, most jarringly, the moment in the third episode when the filtered blur on Kris Jenner’s face is so heavy that her nose almost disappears entirely.
“It’s as if she’s been awoken from a bout of 15-year walking pneumonia and suddenly recovered, despite the doctors telling her that she’d never feel emotion again.”
And still, there does seem to be real growth here. Or, rather, character development, as that’s essentially what the personas in this series are: characters.
Kourtney in particular has come alive. It’s as if she’s been awoken from a bout of 15-year walking pneumonia and suddenly recovered, despite the doctors telling her that she’d never feel emotion again. She has real light in her eyes! It’s actually heartening to see.
In the original series, we spent so long retreading the same tired plot between Kourtney and Scott Disick: they’re together, she’s pregnant, he’s a mess, she’s annoyed, he’s endearing and sorry, they’re happy but still stagnant. And repeat. Now it’s like she snapped out of a decade-plus long trance after someone said the long-forgotten key phrase that broke her from the hypnotic, draining repetition: “Rock ‘n roll, baby.”
Sure, her entire storyline may be centering around how much she wants to stick her tongue down Travis Barker’s throat — and she is so real for that — but that’s also what manages to make her the most Kompelling Kardashian on the roster this time around. Well, except for Kris.
Kris Jenner remains far and away the most captivating woman in reality television. And now we have Kris 5.0: a buffed and puffed new model, still scheming but growing more motherly as she gets older. But don’t be fooled, her machinations are always brewing.
While speaking in a confessional scene about Kourtney’s relationship with Travis, Kris looks at the camera dead in the lens and says, “Not only is he one of the most famous drummers, in one of the most famous bands in the world, but the flip side is he’s the greatest dad! ” Not one of the BEST drummers. Not one of the MOST TALENTED drummers. One of the most FAMOUS. If her daughter’s union won’t potentially allow her to increase the size of her comically large Scrooge McDuck pool of gold doubloons, Kris Jenner simply isn’t interested.
Her unwillingness to mask the fact that she’s always after a paycheck at the end of the day is what continues to make her the most arresting member of the family. It’s shocking how far a little transparency can go when it comes to the likability of the disgustingly rich. The same can be said for the rest of her children, too.
Sure, The Kardashians is always verging on parody. It’s formulaic television made in a lab: the automaton women walking around with their surgically-perfected faces and robotic vocal fry, like The Stepford Wives on ketamine. But that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating! In the years since they changed reality television for good, no one has been able to quite match their proprietary formula of rare vulnerability mixed with endless, unintentional foolishness.
It was fitting that we spent the first three episodes of The Kardashians leading up to Kim’s appearance on SNLas that’s really the only other television show I can think of that exists on the same plane as this rebooted series.
Like SNL, the Kardashians ’presence in the television landscape has become such a cultural touchstone that even when it’s bad, it’s inescapable. And when it’s good, it’s not really that much better. The pulse of life that runs through it remains even-keeled, even when its quality dips. It can’t be burned. It can’t be killed. It can’t be forgotten. If we’re going to be stuck with it forever, we might as well try to find a way to laugh at it. I guess Kris Jenner’s disappearing nose is a good place to start for now.