Last week, Keeping Up With the Kardashians aired the first episode of its 20th and final season. The show, which has run on E! since 2007, is finally coming to a close, and it is feeling deeply sentimental about that fact.
The teaser for season 20 sees the entire family burst into sobs as matriarch Kris Jenner announces to the crew that this season will be their last, and it ends on Kim undoing her microphone for the last time in slow motion. In the season premiere, new footage of the family is interspersed with old home movie footage: Kim on her first day of eighth grade, Kris pregnant with Khloé, the three oldest sisters swimming in their home pool as preteens. It is as nostalgic as the yearbook of a high school senior.
But Keeping Up With the Kardashians is nostalgic for something that has not really ended. In December, the family announced a deal with Hulu that will see them creating what is ambiguously described as “global content” for the streaming network.
It’s unclear how much the forthcoming Kardashian-Jenner Hulu show(s) will continue the vibe and legacy of E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians. At this point, we don’t know if the new package will include a docusoap at all. And if it does, we don’t know that it will follow the soothingly familiar format that E! has refined over the course of 20 seasons, with all its inflections of an ersatz ’60s family sitcom put through an Instagram filter: The Brady Bunch, but with lip fillers.
Still, even after Keeping Up With the Kardashians as we know it comes to an end, the Kardashian reality TV empire will go on.
This decision to not so much end their franchise as transfer it is, it must be said, a very Kardashian move. Every time the family appears to have reached the point of moving beyond their long-established brand, they simply refuse to do so. The past 14 years of Kardashian fame have seen popular culture again and again get excited to rebrand the Kardashians, and again and again find itself stymied as the family brand reasserts itself.
The Kardashians now find themselves in a bizarre position in our era of poptimistic analysis. When their show premiered in 2007, it was considered cool to sneer at popular things, so pop culture commenters made disgusted noises about the perceived Kardashian classlessness and their lack of talent, even while avidly consuming the spectacle of their lives.
But over the past decade, pop culture analysts have rejected the knee-jerk snobbery and snark of the ’00s and embraced a more populist worldview. If something is popular, the thinking goes, there must be some valuable reason for that. And the Kardashians were assuredly popular. So surely there must be something there? And surely it could turn out to be something worthy of celebrating?
But every time a new think piece about the Kardashians suggested that the family was secretly made up of progressive icons, some new catastrophe would arise that prevented the narrative from taking hold.
When Kim Kardashian became politically active and began lobbying for clemency for death row inmates, she also kept on selling dangerous “tummy tea” laxatives and appetite-suppressant lollipops to her teen followers. When commenters began to suggest that it was subversively feminist for Kim Kardashian to have so effectively monetized the fallout from having her ex-boyfriend try to release her sex tape without her permission, Rob Kardashian posted revenge porn of his ex online. When the family began to refocus their image away from their scandalous sex lives and toward their collective business acumen in the late 2010s, they did so with so much massaging of the truth that they had to weather another scandal after Forbes retracted Kylie Jenner’s status as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire in a scathing exposé that denounced the family as “desperate.” (Kylie is officially a $900 millionaire.)
So when the Kardashians announced last fall that they would be ending their eponymous show, the response from commenters (self included) was that the decision appeared to be in keeping with the natural evolution of their careers. The Kardashians are influencers now, and they get most of their influence from social media, where nearly every member of the family has hundreds of millions of followers. The 19th season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, meanwhile, routinely pulled in under a million viewers per episode.
The Kardashians had outgrown the need for reality TV, I concluded. They don’t need the platform of their TV show to build their brands or to sell stuff. They’ve moved past all that.
I should have known better. The Kardashians never move past anything if they can help it. They might not need reality TV anymore, but they’re holding onto it with white-knuckled determination regardless. Their brand has brought them this far, and they’re not going to change it any time soon.