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The Kardashians (2022) and Reality TV in the Age of Streaming

by Fionna Farrell

Staff Writer

[originally published May 9, 2022]


To use a favorite Obie buzzword (in)correctly, my first memory of Netflix is trapped in the liminal spaces of my brain. I was thirteen, living in a daze. What could possibly save me from the adolescent pain of unrequited love and factoring trinomials? Obviously, the answer was House of Cards. In 2013, everyone was talking about that show, so I, too, had to join in on the trend—even though I had not quite learned what the duties of the Secretary of State were. Alas, that's just how it was back then; without 250 original series to choose from across streaming platforms, we were all tethered to the monolith. HOC was not actually Netflix’s first-ever original series—that title goes to Lillyhammer, a since-forgotten Norwegian crime drama—but it was the first one to really get people’s attention. Not bad for their second try. And with its swift introduction of the binge-watching model, the series had everyone raving over Twitter as opposed to the water cooler.

We’ve all known what’s happened since then. In 2022, streaming services now seem to have a vise-like grip over television—not just what’s put out there, but how it’s marketed to, and hence digested by us. Has any genre of TV dared to slither out of this sleeper hold?

Perhaps the Kardashians have, as they do their black latex suits. Of course, “the Kardashians” is not a genre—rather, they are more of a symptom of the post-Real World reality TV that became bitingly popular c. 2007. In its first iteration, Keeping Up With the Kardashians became the highest-rated series aired on Sunday nights for adults. The series continued for roughly fourteen years, airing its final episode in June of last year. That was after ratings had plummeted, amassing weekly viewers in the ten-thousands compared to their former millions.

On April 14th, Hulu aired its first episode of The Kardashians—no, not Keeping Up With, but rather an entirely new series aimed at freshness and novelty. Indeed, we definitely get that, stylistically, with the first episode—at least, its opening sequence. The show opens with a series of drone shots through the various family members’ houses, which are all homogeneously dazzling (even though Khloe’s is being renovated). Then we move to their places of work, including Kylie Cosmetics headquarters, where we fly around pink signs that say “Kylie.” In the series’ title card, the K women pose in an array of off-white outfits. They look purified and professional—Kylie may be pregnant, but the women appear haunting and reborn.

Kim tells us a bit about her life while she’s been taking a break from filming the past year. In her own words, she has been focusing on studying for the bar exam and being a mom. Her discussion of cleaning her kids’ playroom is harrowingly honest: “That kind of stuff gets me horny, to clean out my kids’ fucking play room.”

In this regard, we do actually get a fair dosage of sweet, sweet reality. Perhaps this has to do, too, with the show’s usage of fourth wall breaks. In this new iteration, the fourth wall breaks make the show, at times, feel like more of a documentary than a reality TV show—like when Kim looks directly into the camera while heating up a plate of chicken nuggets to say “I’m only a vegan sometimes.” But that’s about the most of it. For the rest of the show, we find ourselves easing back into the swing of things. We get updates on the three major partnerships: Kimye, Kravis, and Toe, with, for some reason, an appearance from Scott Disick. The drama of the episode comes to a helm when Kim decides to sue Roblox, who posted an ad for her “new sex tape.” This is right before Kim is scheduled to host SNL. In the pilot of KUWTK, Kim was also dealing with a sex tape, and was also set to guest on a very popular show—The Tyra Banks Show.

Things come around full circle. For Hulu, this is far from a bad thing—for now. On April 20th, Variety reported that The Kardashians has become Hulu’s biggest series premiere in history. Were these all just loyal KUWTK fans performing their duties to their rulers? Or, perhaps, could a new crowd have been pulled into the thrall? In either case, the truly salient question is: when will people stop watching? I know that sometimes I can't resist the temptation to mindlessly click on whatever the banner presents me with—especially on Sunday nights, when mind-numbing vocal fry is just what I’m in the mood for. But that by no means means that I’ll keep watching. Unless something particularly historical happens, like when Kim has her first court case (to clarify: as a lawyer, not plaintiff).

I suppose that could happen anytime within the next year or the next decade. In the meantime, I think it’s fair to say that The Kardashians’ initial success as a reality show will also contribute to its downfall. After a period of time yet unknown to us, its audience will simply lose interest, just as they did with KUWTK—that could be after a few more episodes or a few more seasons alike. The truth of the matter is, despite its superficial novelties, that admittedly do give the show a fresh flair, it really isn’t that different from what it used to be. What if it were bingeable? Maybe that would be a different story. Maybe that would make certain temptations for brain cell killers harder to resist. But for now, we have bingeable series that do just the opposite—high concept, or even just, well, mid-range concept shows that make a fuss about wanting to give us something new. Something not just attention-grabbing, but really worth our attention. That’s become an invaluable currency these days.

I’ve heard the new one is Apple TV’s Severance. It’s a shame that I unsubscribed to that platform once I got fed up with Ted Lasso’s optimism. Because here is the description of that show: “Mark leads a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives; when a mysterious colleague appears outside of work, it begins a journey to discover the truth about their jobs.” It stars Adam McKay. I mean, Adam Scott. Same thing.

Reality TV will never change. There is a secret formula located within that will stand the test of time. We can make it look different, more hyperfocused and avant garde, but at the end of the day, it is people’s lives on camera. Whether that be in the Real World house or Kim’s home or the Bachelor mansion. There’s a certain sadness I do feel for reality TV in the age of streaming. Yes, Severance looks cool, but I’m not sure if I have the capacity for that right now. At Oberlin, I readily admit that Brian Eno’s ambient music soothes my ears; I won’t keep it a secret that Kim’s ambient voice has the capacity to soothe my soul in these troubled times.

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