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Why Keeping up with the Kardashians doesn’t know how to handle Kim’s robbery

Family Equality Council's Impact Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel - Inside Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Family Equality Council
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Kim Kardashian’s brand is a careful balancing act of intimate vulnerability and glossy, aspirational luxury.

Her brand is getting married to the most famous rapper in the world in a custom-fitted Givenchy dress, and it’s a tearful confessional to the camera about how her sisters don’t seem to like their bridesmaid dresses, and that’s really hard.

It’s “Stars: They’re just like us!” taken to the nth degree. Kim Kardashian is rich and beautiful and surrounded by expensive and beautiful things, but her problems are normal person problems, amplified. She and her sisters are fighting; there’s friction with her stepfather; her mother is controlling. This is part of what keeps Keeping Up with the Kardashians compelling: Viewers recognize themselves in Kim’s problems, and that allows them to project themselves into her glamorous lifestyle.

When Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in Paris last October, it was inevitable that her reality show would cover the event. It was a real thing that actually happened to Kardashian, one that clearly affected her life and her personality on a deep level. And the gossip press covered it insatiably. Keeping up with the Kardashians couldn’t not cover it.

But it was just as inevitable that the show would struggle to integrate a real life trauma into Kardashian’s carefully curated brand.

Keeping up with the Kardashians changed its style to accommodate the trauma of the robbery

On Sunday night, Keeping up with the Kardashians finally addressed last fall’s robbery in the second episode of its 13th season. The show milked the drama of the robbery for all it was worth — lots of tense teasers and close-ups on Kim’s tear-stained face — but it clearly struggled with how to address the trauma within its established format.

The episode opened and closed with a discussion of the robbery, and it teased the upcoming drama before every commercial break, but the bulk of its airtime was a standard episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians: Kim and Kourtney tried on Givenchy couture, Kanye critiqued their fashion choices, then they went and watched their half-sister Kendall walk the runway.

When it finally got to the robbery, the show’s style immediately and jarringly shifted away from the glossy E! camera footage to the deliberately grainy and imperfect video Kanye West uses to document his every move (Kim says he’s thinking of making a documentary someday), as he got the news of the robbery and abruptly canceled his concert. When it switched back to the E! cameras, the show had dropped its standard post-ad-break bumpers, the rapid-fire montages of this week’s glamorous setting over a bass-heavy soundtrack. Instead, it came back from the commercial break by dropping immediately into the action, with testimonials from each Kardashian sister explaining just how she got the news.

When Kim sat down with her sisters to tell them what had happened, her usual artful contouring was wiped away. She was styled with a no-makeup look instead: perfect skin, but paler than usual, and just enough mascara to bring out the dewiness of her eyes. She was dressed in a giant sweatshirt that swallowed her up, making her look tiny and vulnerable. It was a deliberate contrast to the high-fashion Kim we’d just seen at Paris Fashion Week, all intimacy and vulnerability where the rest of the episode was glamour and aspiration.

Kim started to cry as she remembered pleading with the robbers to let her live so she could go back to her babies, and the show cut to a soft-focused montage of the Kardashian Wests playing with their children.

“Whatever,” Kim concluded. “They’re just things, it’s all replaceable.”

“Except you,” said Khloé softly, the background music turning redemptive and sweet as the camera pushed in on the three sisters embracing.

The high-stakes melodrama of an armed robbery doesn’t mesh with the intimate family drama the Kardashians usually traffic in

To reconcile the horror of the robbery with the intimate family drama of Keeping up with the Kardashians, the show created a neat, moralistic resolution: The robbery was traumatic, but in the end, family is the most important thing, and the Kardashian clan can get through anything as long as they’re together. They have each other — and, the show likes to imply, you the viewer, who is encouraged to feel like part of the family — and that’s all that matters.

But the highly constructed sentimentality of the docusoap does not mesh with genuine trauma, and the robbery was clearly genuinely traumatic to Kim and her family. The docusoap turns real terror into a talking head testimonial, and real familial love into a soft-focus montage. It makes everything it touches feel just a little bit fake.

Ordinarily, that artificiality is all part of the trashy fun of the docusoap, but it means that docusoaps can have trouble getting serious without an undercurrent of camp. As a genre, the docusoap is not equipped to handle this kind of story.

Getting robbed of millions of dollars of jewelry at gunpoint is not relatable, and it’s not aspirational, either. Once it’s been put on television, the Kardashian robbery becomes a plot twist that feels as though it comes from the wrong genre. It’s not a reality star problem; it’s a melodrama problem.

In fiction, robbery at gunpoint is what happens to a paper-thin character in a plot-driven story, right before the villain twirls his mustache and ties the heroine to the train tracks. It’s not what happens to the relatable, just-like-you-but-prettier-and-richer heroine of a docusoap. It’s like when Friday Night Lights introduced a murder subplot: Where did that come from? What is this high-stakes violent plot doing in my intimate family drama? Kardashians tried to reconcile the tonal shift by rejiggering the robbery to keep the focus on family, but that only made the whole thing feel that much more falsely sentimental.

Over the remainder of its 13th season, Keeping up with the Kardashians apparently plans to keep going dark. The teaser glances briefly at Kanye’s hospitalization; the music gets dark and foreboding as each Kardashian monologues about how difficult it is to live in the public eye.

And accordingly, the show is likely going to continue to struggle to reconcile its new material with its genre. But it looks like it’s planning to stick to the formula it created in its Paris episode: bring everything back to the family. As the teaser ends, the extended Kardashian clan joins hands around a table.

“At the end of the day,” concludes matriarch Kris Jenner, “we have each other. And that means everything.”