For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which started in 2007 and recently completed its 10th season.
It’s the fourth episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ fourth season and Khloé Kardashian is excited. Newly married to professional basketball player Lamar Odom, Khloé suspects that she may be pregnant, an occurrence she greatly anticipates. It’s long been established on the show that Khloé, despite her sardonic exterior, is the caretaker of the family, as she was very influential in the upbringing of her younger half-sisters. Her morning sickness and missed period inspire her to take a pregnancy test, which comes back positive. Slowly the information filters through her chatty family tree, even before she manages to inform her husband. So prevalent is Khloé’s nausea, that her mother Kris and sister Kourtney joke about her vomiting when she excuses herself from the table to use the restroom in the final scene. So they’re confused when Khloé returns abruptly and digs in her purse for a quarter, until she resignedly quips, “I need a tampon.”
Khloé’s pregnancy that wasn’t and her continued struggles with infertility have long been one of the most human and relatable elements in the Keeping Up With The Kardashians universe, but those who’ve watched the series’ nearly 150 episodes know it’s far from the only resonating element. But the Kardashians, in general, are nothing if not a divisive clan, with haters as notable as President Obama himself, so how is it that such a notorious family has found such success in opening their lives to the masses? The show was recently renewed for an additional three seasons, a deal reportedly worth $80 million dollars.
Before we can delve into why Keeping Up With The Kardashians has been so successful, it’s important to examine the obstacles the series has to overcome with regard to public perception. A large part of the problem that KUWTK faces in the court of public appeal is the fact that it’s a reality television show. There’s something about the word “reality” that sets people’s teeth on edge, leaving many anxious to spout off about how “fake” reality television is. With its manipulative edits and creative storytelling, reality TV is dismissed as the the bastard child of scripted programming, much the same way as professional wrestling is dismissed as not being a true sport.
It’s a ridiculous dismissal, ultimately, because it focuses on the wrong thing. Like climate-change naysayers who crow about “global warming” in the midst of an eight-month winter, critics of the reality genre often get hung up on the label as opposed to the content. Reality television isn’t about creating an unimpeachable documentary to serve as the anthropological record of our time; it’s a way to craft narrative in new and different ways. Whether that narrative is meant to entertain or educate or irritate varies from show to show, just like any other genre of television. But that knee-jerk reaction to the mere idea of reality television is indicative of a fairly pervasive trend in cultural criticism as of late: judging a product you didn’t even bother investigating.
For the millions of Americans who’ve watched season after season of Kardashians, the appeal is self-evident, even if they may not perceive exactly why they find the show so appealing. At heart, KUWTK is built on the tried-and-true sitcom model, popularized in the reality genre in 2002 with MTV’s The Osbournes. But where The Osbournes built their show around an inverse Father Knows Best structure, KUWTK fashions itself around the sitcoms popularized in the ’80s and early ’90s centered around a group of female friends. This is particularly true of the earlier seasons, when the show aired in a half-hour timeslot; nearly every episode began with an establishing shot of the exterior of the Jenner home, not unlike similar shots used to open The Golden Girls. The show is so married to the identity of sitcom that it even weakens in later seasons, as the regulars move on to other projects and the series scrambles to fill the void with players called in from the minor leagues, like Kylie and Kendall Jenner, the Kardashians’ precocious half-sisters.
It’s not just that KUWTK builds upon the foundation of golden girls that came before, but rather that it taps into the unspoken blueprint for female camaraderie on television. Female social circles, particularly on sitcoms, are often represented in groups of four, which then break down personality-wise into the following established female archetypes, which I’ll call the Slattern, the Simpleton, the Cynic, and the Center. The personality traits are broad, but consistent, and recur in show after show.
The Slattern is the sex kitten, the character most comfortable with being a sexual being and often construed, fairly or otherwise, as being a bit of a strumpet. These are your Blanche Devereauxs (Golden Girls), your Suzanne Sugarbakers (Designing Women), your Samantha Joneses (Sex And The City). On KUWTK, this is Kim herself. Despite the fact that she is not actually the most crude of the Kardashian cluster (that would be Khloé), Kim finds herself in this role thanks to the notoriety of her sex tape and her high-profile love life, coupled with her choice to take agency in the sexualization of her image.
The Simpleton is sweetly naïve, the character who, while not necessarily dumb, exhibits an often-debilitating blind spot in which their hopeful innocence often renders them a bit of a fool. These are your Rose Nylunds (GG), your Charlene Fraziers (DW), your Charlotte Yorks (SATC). In the Kardashians’ case, this is eldest sister Kourtney. While a savvy business woman, Kourtney been dumb in love for the entirety of the show’s 143 episodes to date, spending the whole of the run embroiled in a tumultuous relationship with serial philanderer and all-around jackass Scott Disick. From the very first episode of the series, Kourtney’s family has been skeptical of Disick’s loyalties. Only with Disick’s most recent betrayal has the eldest sister found the wherewithal to suck it up and end her nine-year dysfunctional relationship.
The Cynic is wryly humorous, the character quickest with a joke, who often wields a sharp tongue to guard a soft heart: your Sophia Petrillos (GG), your Julia Sugarbakers (DW), your Miranda Hobbeses (SATC.) Despite being the family’s mini-mother, this role falls to Khloé, who always has a punchline at the ready in order to steer attention away from her hurt feelings, adopting a flippancy intentionally honed to keep people at a distance. For those she feels most comfortable with, like her sisters, Khloé tough facade falters and gives way to a deeply goofy persona.
The Center is just that: the innocuous middle ground. (Alternatively, the Center is sometimes more accurately characterized as the Commentator, the character who often seems a bit outside the action looking in.) These are your Dorothy Zbornaks (GG), your Mary Jo Shivelys (DW), your Carrie Bradshaws (SATC). On KUWTK this role falls to mother Kris, who, having given birth to everyone involved is inextricably embroiled (often by her own meddling) in every single happening on the show, while curiously being unable to ever truly own the Kardashian mantle again.
The way that Keeping Up With The Kardashians has embraced the elements of sitcom is a large part of what makes it so appealing, but also serves as the root of the fundamental disconnect that some have when looking at the show. As easy as it is to dismiss the individuals involved as mocked-up caricatures, these are real people, with real lives, and real concerns. Although lesser episodes of the show read like live-action “Stars—They’re Just Like US!” columns, there is still a deep resonance when we see Khloé struggle to conceive the children she so deeply desires or watch Kim battle a skin condition she fears will destroy her livelihood or bear witness to the way Kourtney struggles to hold together a family unit for her children. There is an emotional weight to watching a family grapple with jealousy, deal with bereavement, or adjust to the reality of losing a father and gaining a mother.
Keeping Up With The Kardashians gives us real, joyous, ugly, unsavory, hilarious life, with all the polished sitcom trappings. And though the latter may have launched a multimedia empire, the former has made it last.