The Kardashian family media approach used to be Swiss-watch precise: First, an event in the public life of the family happened, and was covered by the tabloid press in its moment. Then, some months later, the event would be the subject of an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” their E! reality show, in which the siblings discussed matters direct-to-camera. This could prompt a whole new round of chatter, one in which the family controlled the narrative.
With their new series, Hulu’s “The Kardashians,” which Kim Kardashian and her mother and sisters executive produce along with Ben Winston, the family’s control has grown tighter, but has whittled away the element that made the whole thing go. They still want our attention, but find themselves without things they’re willing to say. This shows itself in numerous ways: For one thing, the old series used sitcom rhythms and inelegant lighting and camerawork to bring the viewer closer to its stars; glamorous though they might seem, they were ultimately just like the audience on the couch. As the second season of the family’s new show ends Nov. 24, it feels like a document of tight control, with the manner in which the family sees itself, as fashion-industry standard-bearers, relentlessly pushed forward in both overly slick aesthetic and in story.
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Nothing happens on “The Kardashians” anymore! It’s somewhat staggering. Sure, there are literal incidents: The series, this season, has devoted multiple episodes to Kim’s preparations for and eventual appearance at the Met Gala, at which she wore a dress iconically associated with Marilyn Monroe. (We are told that Kim is a “shape-shifter,” but see her actual preparations in terms of working out only briefly; the negotiation to allow her to wear the dress in the first place happens off-camera, though Kim describes it. It sounds like it would have been interesting to see!) And elsewhere, family members go to Italy for fashion week and for dress fittings, and prepare, in a snake-eating-tail moment that might be mistaken for coming full circle, for the premiere of their own show. But the various family members are vastly less insightful about fashion, about which they can express their taste and sensibilities as well as any star, than they are about the dramas of their lives, where their pinpoint ability to target and share feelings made them megafamous.
And, here, that’s sanded away. The season’s first episode was set closer to the present, as Khloé reveals to the camera that she is imminently to have a baby via surrogate, a state of affairs she had been unwilling to discuss on-camera throughout the process. Her right to privacy amid such an emotional personal journey is indeed her own, but it exists in a funny way in a series putatively about opening up the family story to the world. The fact of such personal change happening entirely out of the camera’s line of sight re-emphasizes that what we see is what we are allowed to see, and brings the mind to just how little of that there really is. (Endless discussion of the decorating schemes of family private jets comes to seem both tasteless and like a way to pad out running time.)
Elsewhere, we hear that the family are stressed about a lawsuit being brought by Blac Chyna, the ex of Kim’s brother Rob (himself not seen on camera) but are never remotely near a courtroom, nor provided much context for why she sued at all; all we get are disquisitions from Kim and company about how the world will see the truth. The rapper now known as Ye, Kim’s ex-husband, is a non-presence, and Pete Davidson, her now-ex-boyfriend whom she dated after her marriage, appears only briefly. The latter seems less pernicious than the case of Ye, who has stood astride the news cycle this year for reasons including public declarations of antisemitism. It’s easy to understand Kim’s unwilling to go there in discussing among the most easily-provoked public figures of our time, but hard to accept this show, then, as a document of anything other than the most sanitized version of her life. The show’s breeziness can’t conceal the baggage with which it’s laden.
The “Kardashians” franchise has always been an attempt to redefine reality: When it began, it framed a Hollywood-adjacent striver best known for a then-recent sex tape scandal as one in a galaxy of potential stars who, conveniently enough, happened to be a family. This worked out better than can have been expected. Now, though, the attempts to force us all onto the family’s own terms rankle. Consider the scene in the season’s fourth episode in which several family members are interviewed by my colleague Elizabeth Wagmeister for a video to accompany a Variety cover. Kim, afterwards, is stunned that people are scandalized by her tone, which would make sense had she only said the portion that the show depicted, urging women to get to work, and not the part the show cut out, which is that she feels “nobody wants to work these days.” This line read as tone-deaf and privileged — the economic inequality so many are feeling is not because of laziness. The edit was noticeable, a sign that Team Kim, and her show’s producers, have gotten a bit artless in their manipulations.
Say this much: The Kardashians want to work, along a very particular fashion-industry line that would look for all the world like a heavily scheduled vacation for many viewers. And they want to be seen working. It’s just about the only element of their heavily leveraged lives that they’re comfortable sharing. And while they’re under no obligation to express things about which they’d rather keep silent, it won’t come as a surprise if, in time, the public’s attention begins to move on. The deal, historically, was that our attention would follow the family’s insights and explications of their personal relations. Getting your ass up and working may be more virtuous. But it’s a lot less fun.
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