Since it began, 2020 has felt like the dawn of a new and more terrible era based more on science fiction than reality. We’re simultaneously dealing with a global pandemic where experts and epidemiologists are ignored by governments; an Orwellian nightmare of digital disinformation; and wildfire-ravaged skies that look like something out of Blade Runner 2049. And now, we’re bidding goodbye to another type of reality this year, in the form of the finale of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The show’s twentieth and last season is set to air in 2021, marking the end of a 16-year run that few would ever have predicted.
Today, the Kardashians and their affiliate branch, the Jenners, are household names around the world, and the sprawling family has always found a way to stay relevant in entertainment news. Like a relay race, different members have picked up plotlines for KUWTK over the years: Most recently, youngest sister Kylie came to global attention last year when Forbes named her the youngest self-made billionaire thanks to her bestselling line of lip kits — and again this year when the legitimacy of her billionaire status came into question.
Her elder sister Kendall is known for being a top model who hangs with the Hadid sisters, while the three Kardashian sisters (and brother Rob, forever in parentheses) fraternise with the likes of Jay-Z and Bey, LeBron James, J Law, J Lo and beyond.
But the early days of Kardashian fame were a far cry from the mega-rich Balmain-clad glamazons they’ve become. Kim, the middle sister of late lawyer Robert Kardashian’s four children, was a hanger-on friend of hotel heiress Paris Hilton in the early 2000s. Her family had some notoriety due to her father's successful defence of OJ Simpson, but overall, Kim and her family were barely supporting characters in the first blush of the reality TV heyday, with dubious fashion sense and a desire to be included that made them - dare I say it? - relatable. Even with Kim’s leaked sex tape, in these times of Onlyfans and WAP, the Kardashians look almost wholesome in retrospect.
The early days of Kardashian fame were a far cry from the mega-rich Balmain-clad glamazons they’ve become.
A surprising sensitivity
This was the charm of watching KUWTK too. From eldest Kourtney’s on-and-off issues with baby daddy Scott Disick that dominated the early seasons, to Kim’s short-lived and highly publicised marriage, from Rob’s depression to fan favourite Khloe’s perpetual misfortune in love, there is a strange sincerity in this meticulously produced peek into the lives of one of America’s most controversial families.
And the Kardashian clan could be surprisingly progressive, keeping up with the conversation as adroitly as the show's name suggests. When Caitlyn Jenner (formerly known as Bruce) came out as trans in 2015, she publicly transitioned in the show and released a special about the family coming to terms with her new identity. Kim’s struggles with fertility and IVF after her marriage to Kanye West were also tackled with a sensitivity many might find surprising. Above all, KUWTK insisted, the Kardashians were a family who had each other’s backs.
It’s only in the last few years that the cracks between family and business have emerged, in a series of meta-arguments on the show about the show. Promotions involve the sisters coyly dropping hints on talk shows about what’s to come in new seasons, even as their personal tragedies and triumphs are splashed across tabloids. This brand of candid capitalism is only furthered by the family’s mammoth social media presence, replete with ridiculously edited photos that nevertheless claim to be authentic representations of them. The exhaustion of such an uncompromisingly public existence seemed to catch up with Kourtney, who wanted out of KUWTK to focus on her family.
The Kardashian clan could be surprisingly progressive, keeping up with the conversation as adroitly as the show's name suggests.
Was this the moment Kardashian fatigue well and truly set in for audiences, when it did for some of the family members themselves? On one hand, the Kardashians have gone beyond the reality show and become superstars in their own right. Have we also stopped needing more carefully cultivated, bare-it-all, famous-for-being-famous celebrities in 2020?
The Kardashians might have been our very first influencers, spawning a movement that will outlive KUWTK. But this year has also seen us, the viewing public, no longer being interested in celebrity for celebrity’s sake. An ill-advised cover of “Imagine” by a host of sur-challenged Hollywood actors, featuring their sumptuous homes and gardens in the background, wasn’t so much inspiring as it was irritating to ordinary people going through crisis. In India, film fans have steadily lost patience with privileged Bollywood stars, with the growing outcry over nepotism coming to a head this year. Fame is a fickle friend, and in a world on fire, celebrities are often a reminder of the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
The demise of KUWTK, a reality show that defined the previous decade, is timely. Of course we’ll miss the unbeatable drama and Kim’s iconic crying face – but in the immortal words of Kourtney, there’s people that are dying.