For the last twelve years, Keeping Up with the Kardashians has been at the forefront of the reality TV genre. Matriarch Kris Jenner and her daughters have shrewdly managed to supply their fans with faux-candid trainwreck television while simultaneously protecting the family brand. It seemed as though, through all the scandals and despite their many critics, they would always Keep Kontrol of the narrative. But with the sixteenth season’s two-part finale, the Kardashians’ grip has, for the first time, been seen to slip.
The actual story seems simple at first: middle daughter Khloe’s boyfriend and baby daddy Tristan Thompson was caught cheating, and not for the first time. It should have been a simple and oft-told tale: the shocked public, the outraged family, the forlorn pictures of the wronged woman carrying her innocent baby, and finally, the forgiveness. But this time, the Kardashians didn’t have control. Their own reality fame did them in.
While the usual TV show exists within an insular microcosm, the Kardashians’ mainstream fame now completely overshadows their own show. Their astronomical fame has let them to pose for the cover of Vogue, date top musicians and professional athletes, meet with the president at the White House, and sell out any product they touch. However, it has also finally completely annihilated their ability to manage their image. Their most important asset – their brand – is now much harder to control, and this season’s finale shows their increasingly desperate attempts to do so.
It’s hard to say exactly when their fame overtook the four-month production lag. The most likely point was the two-part saga in 2011 entitled “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event.” This over-the-top wedding and the circus-like seventy-two-day marriage that followed were headline news, a story the Kardashians ensured they could tell in full on their spinoff “Kim and Kourtney Take New York.”
The episodes didn’t contain much information that viewers didn’t know from entertainment news shows and websites months prior, apart from one strange scene. In this scene, Kim, appearing stiff and unemotional, voices her supposed concerns about her new husband to her mother Kris in a car – according to the show’s subtitles, this took place in Dubai. However, Kim and Kris were photographed leaving a studio in Los Angeles wearing the distinctive ensembles, hair, and makeup from this scene. Coincidentally, within the scene itself, the windows of the car are completely blacked out. Even devoted fans noticed what seemed like deliberate deception as the Kardashians tried to support a new narrative.
While recreated scenes are fairly routine in the world of reality TV, the “Dubai” scene appeared to be concocted purely for the purpose of spin, and to salvage Kim’s credibility after filing for divorce after just ten weeks of marriage. There had been no hint in the show that her husband, NBA player Kris Humphries, had been a problem of any kind. The faked scene appeared to exist solely to save the Kardashian’s image by tarnishing Humphries.
Their forty-two minutes a week has turned into a cog in the wheel of the Kardashian media machine, less about telling new stories than about explaining the ones we already know. This approach used to work, albeit clunkily, but now the mainstream media covers their storylines months in advance of the actual show. For years, they needed to drum up attention, but now they receive so much attention – an increasing amount of it negative – that their show has often become damage control. In this season finale, the family once again tried to spin a negative story to their advantage, but this time, it backfired spectacularly.
In February 2019, the public cheating of Khloe Kardashian’s boyfriend, NBA player Tristan Thompson, was exposed for the second time – this time with her little sister Kylie Jenner’s best friend Jordyn Woods. Jordyn’s subsequent interview on Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Red Table Talk, and Khloe’s incredibly raw and rabid response on Twitter, were reported extensively by every entertainment journalism outlet. The coverage of Tristan was predictably negative, but to the Kardashian’s apparent surprise, the coverage of Khloe’s response was also pointedly critical.
Even the minor players in the Kardashian universe are stars now. The Kardashians underestimated Jordyn Woods’s power and overestimated their control over her. Jordyn, a young woman of twenty-one, is the goddaughter of Jada Pinkett-Smith, who has her own TV show, a talk show called “Red Table Talk.” Jordyn could appear on Red Table Talk immediately, but the Kardashians had to wait four months for their show to be filmed and edited, giving Jordyn a chance to make her point of view the accepted truth of the story. This, coupled with Khloe’s hostile tweets about Jordyn, cemented viewers in opposition to the Kardashian spin.
By the time the KUWTK show on the topic aired, the whole Kardashian family had already tried to sell the narrative of Jordyn Woods as the villain. The Twitter-verse wasn’t buying it. Once their Jordyn-as-villain story received hugely negative pushback online, the Kardashians shifted strategy, adding many face-saving scenes in the editing room. Incredibly, they still attempted to push their original story, reiterating their talking points on their season finale and always focusing on Jordyn’s culpability as the “other woman”. Tristan Thompson, the actual cheating boyfriend, was almost a side issue.
It seemed to come as a great surprise to the Kardashians that their chosen narrative was rejected. Until that point, the family’s ever-increasing wealth, fame, and power had worked to their advantage. There had been public relations problems before, but nothing the Kardashian publicity machine couldn’t handle. But perhaps that was in a simpler world. Suddenly, it seems that there are so many news outlets, so many Z-list celebrities, and so much gossip for anyone, journalist or not, to tweet. KUWTK ratings have been steadily declining, and even the most devoted Kardashian fans unlikely to tune in to see a half-hearted explanation of something that was in the news months ago.
As executive producer since the pilot, matriarch Kris Jenner always had a say in the editing room. In 2015, she gave up the executive producer title, a change which seems to have marked a general shift in the purpose of the show. Since the family was already receiving nonstop coverage from mainstream news outlets, KUWTK became less of a family comedy and more of an hour-long promotion of the family’s many branded products and events. The viewership declined as even faithful fans found that they could “keep up with the Kardashians” without ever watching their show.
Full disclosure: I am a Kardashian fan, and I watched the season finale hoping to get more insight into the Khloe-Tristan-Jordyn scandal. As a viewer, I was frustrated that the Kardashians had two full hours to tell their side, but gave us no new information. Instead, I saw a lot of surface-level, non-specific explanations, including some looped dialogue that seemed intentionally misleading: stagnant shots on people’s listening faces, while mismatched audio plays, insisting that the sisters blame both Jordyn and Tristan for the tryst.
The most notable inconsistency occurs when Khloe utters, in tones suggesting she’s in a different room, over a shot of Kim’s listening face, “Tristan, we’ve all know what he’s capable of, look what he did when I was nine months pregnant.” A few seconds later, the camera is on Khloe’s face as we see her say, “Jordyn didn’t think about me, she didn’t think about Kylie…she didn’t think about my daughter.”
As the ratings have dropped, there’s been a lot of discussion online about the fate of the show. I can’t imagine that even die-hard fans will continue to tune in to watch an infomercial for the Kardashian brand. But this hardly matters. Even the Kardashians themselves seem to understand that the survival of the show is barely relevant to the survival of their empire. Since the Kardashians were pioneers in monetizing reality TV fame, maybe they’ll also be the first to rectify the problem that many reality stars face today: becoming too famous for their own show.