The first episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which aired on Oct. 14, 2007, runs just under 22 minutes without commercials. It begins with the family offering bite-size introduction of themselves (Khloé: “My sisters say I’m a bitch…but I always have their best interests at heart.”), capped by Kim announcing what sounds like a studio logline for the show: “We’re the modern-day Brady Bunch, with a kick.”
And she’s right. The vibe of the pilot is mildly raunchy but mostly earnest, what the Hollywood Reporter would later term “happily debauched”: Kris and Caitlyn Jenner, then still married, celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary with a casual backyard barbecue, while Kim prepares to discuss her sex tape for the first time on The Tyra Banks Show. Watching it 14 years later, the fashion is dated and the footage looks surprisingly lo-fi, but it’s not just the inevitable passage of time that has made the first installment of Keeping Up With the Kardashians nearly unrecognizable to the show it eventually became.
For one thing, the format has changed: When the 20th and final season of KUWTK premieres tonight, it will run 45 minutes, an episode length more associated with drama than a half-hour, which traditionally signals comedy. That shift in length was made in 2012, following Season 6, which ended with Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event, the four-hour set of special episodes focused on her $6 million wedding to basketball player Kris Humphries. (Yes, this is the marriage that lasted for 72 days; the divorce proceedings, which were messy, dragged on a good deal longer.)
That era would prove to be a watershed moment for the family as well as the show: After her divorce, Kim would start dating Kanye West, and together, they would alchemize her from a D-list curiosity to an undeniable A-list force.
2012 is also around the time that it became apparent that not all of the Kardashian/Jenners were going to survive their rise to fame unscathed: It’s in Season 6 that Rob Kardashian, the lone brother in the brood, is first presented as both a punchline and an object of concern for the family as he gains weight, becomes increasingly reclusive, and despite claiming that he’s trying to do so, fails to find himself any kind of meaningful work beyond creating a middling sock line.
Rob wasn’t the first cast member to be grappling with serious issues very publicly — this is several years after Kourtney’s sometimes boyfriend, Scott Disick, who’s since been in and out of rehab, drunkenly tried to shove a $100 bill down the throat of a server who had cut him off at the Tao nightclub in Las Vegas during one of Kim’s appearances there. (Perhaps not incidentally, the episode that aired after that, which shows Kourtney giving birth to her and Disick’s first child together, set the high-water mark for the show’s ratings.) But these public trials were a signal that the family’s lives were only going to get more complicated, their problems thornier and more troublingly intractable, as the spotlight on them kept shining.
A format that was built to promote a basically cheerful, sentimental take on family life is fundamentally ill-equipped to handle the serious questions of addiction, mental illness, and infidelity that it now regularly confronts.
This meant that Keeping Up With the Kardashians, their flagship enterprise and the crown jewel of their empire, would have to try to find a way to accommodate those realities without breaking its fundamental promise to viewers to provide fun, froth, and modern family values. In the years since, it’s been a continually uneasy balance: A format that was built to promote a basically cheerful, sentimental take on family life is fundamentally ill-equipped to handle the serious questions of addiction, mental illness, and infidelity, among other issues, that it now regularly confronts.
There’s no question that the show ending was spurred in part by a tidal wave of cultural changes: The downfall of cable networks and the rise of streamers have helped precipitate a gradual but noticeable KUWTK’s decline in ratings. (The show, which used to regularly boast several million views per episode, was attracting fewer than a million per toward the end of its 19th season.) But it also seems inarguable that part of the reason that Keeping Up With the Kardashians can’t keep it together is that its basic concept simply isn’t functional anymore.
When Keeping Up was first conceived, it was meant to serve as a publicity vehicle for the family; since then, it’s evolved into a perch from which they can comment on their fame, serving up their side of the story in carefully manicured segments. But it was always meant to be something of a fable: a story with a moral. The sisters must make up at the end of the hour; their bad romantic decisions (ahem, Khloé still-involved-with-Tristan-who-cheated-on-her-throughout-her-pregnancy Kardashian) have to be cast in a flattering and hopeful light.
So while the end of the show won’t free them from media scrutiny (which isn’t what they seem to want anyway — there was barely a three-month gap between when Kim posted to Instagram that KUWTK would be airing its final season and the announcement that the family had signed a deal to develop content for Hulu), perhaps the end of the show will release the family from the obligation of trying to force their personal lives into such publicly palatable shapes. The end of KUWTK doesn’t mean the end of the Kardashian/Jenners, but it might mean the end of the story that their family bond is strong enough to withstand anything — even the changes wrought by a decade and a half of life-altering fame.
The first few seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians are truly confectionary things, full of contrived micro-plots: Kris hiring a nanny who arrives at work in scandalously short cutoffs, or Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney giving a makeover to the man experiencing homelessness who’s living behind their clothing store, DASH. (Yes, much of the show has not aged well.)
There are some serious moments, such as when Khloé gets a DUI on the anniversary of her father’s death in Season 1, but the drama mostly feels human-scale and relatable. Sure, most of us don’t have to argue with our mother about how much time she spends managing our sister’s burgeoning career, but who hasn’t felt that, for one reason or another, they weren’t the favorite sibling? And in those early days, the family could go places without causing much of a stir. It’s startling to see Kim getting into it with her sisters about the purchase of her first Bentley in a Coffee Bean in the valley in a Season 2 episode, a place she could not enter now without attracting a ton of attention.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when the family went from being extremely to unimaginably wealthy, when their fame transformed from an inconvenience to a determining factor in where they are able to go and what they can do. In Season 4, for instance, Khloé and then-husband Lamar Odom shopped for a house together on a budget (albeit a generous one); he wouldn’t let her put in an offer on a $6 million mansion she loved. Fast-forward to November 2020 and Khloé, now divorced, has sold a different house for $15.5 million, setting a record for her Calabasas neighborhood. By the show’s sixth season, the family’s fans were an inescapable presence, and being followed by the paparazzi had already become a part of their everyday life.
And as the family’s fame increased and their bank accounts swelled, their problems, too, became more and more outsize. There is, of course, the matter of the television special for a marriage so short-lived Kim had announced her divorce before it even aired, but that’s neither the beginning nor the end of it. Scott’s addiction issues were an ongoing concern after his Season 4 meltdown, as was Rob’s weight gain and all that it implied in a family obsessed with its appearance. The Kardashians also had to deal with tabloid gossip about themselves, which is how Kris ended up spending the premiere of Season 7 begging Khloé to get a DNA test that would prove she was not the product of one of Kris’s alleged affairs.
At some point, the show became less a frothy display of the family’s fame and more of a crisis PR center for them.
And so at some point, the show became less a frothy display of the family’s fame and more of a crisis PR center for them, a place where they could discuss their scandals on their terms. When Kendall addressed how upset she was about backlash to the 2017 Pepsi commercial that seemed to suggest police brutality could be solved by…soda? in the first episode of Season 14, it was an episode mostly dedicated to other things — Khloé wondering if she should move to Cleveland, and the ongoing friction between Caitlyn and the rest of the family after the publication of her memoir, The Secrets of My Life.
Perhaps not shockingly, there was no discussion of the content of the commercial or any specific objections to it, much less how Kendall might avoid getting involved in something like it in the future. Instead, Kourtney gave Kendall some advice about how to deal with bad press while getting a caviar facial in an oxygen bubble. “I talked to Simon today. He’s like, ‘The news lasts 24 hours,’” Kourtney told her sister in a phone call. (Neither Kourtney nor the show indicated who “Simon” is.) “Russell Simmons called me yesterday to talk about you, and he was like, ‘She can turn this into a positive,’” she added.
Later, Kendall cried during a confessional interview. She talked about how she never wanted to hurt anyone. The footage is moving — it’s hard to see the totalized weight of public opinion pressed against a single individual, especially one who’s as young as Kendall. But it’s also notable that she never actually apologized for her actions; she didn’t say “I’m sorry,” and again, she wasn’t explicit about what harm she caused or to whom. (Instead, Pepsi apologized to her for putting her in this situation in the first place.)
The Pepsi commercial was a one-off thing (well, unless you put it in the context of the sisters’ consistent habit of indulging in cultural appropriation, in which case, it’s definitely part of a pattern of seemingly willful cluelessness around race, particularly Blackness). Even more striking and unsettling is how the show attempts to deal with ongoing realities, things it can’t wrap up and put on the shelf at the end of the hour.
Nowhere is this more evident than in 2015’s two-episode arc dedicated to the family’s reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she was transitioning. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner cannily noted in a contemporaneous New York Times profile of Kris, only Kendall and Kylie gave a statement for the Diane Sawyer special in which Caitlyn first spoke publicly about being trans; the family allowed Caitlyn an exclusive on her announcement, but then waited until they could discuss it on their own platform — allowing her to effectively monetize her news, and them to monetize their reactions to it.
It’s very strange to watch the season in which these events unfolded with the benefit of hindsight: For nine episodes, no one mentioned Caitlyn’s shoulder-length hair or visible facial feminization surgery, her manicured nails, and light lip gloss. And then, all of a sudden, they began to talk about what had been evident to the naked eye all along. It turned out that Caitlyn had told them she was trans in the weeks and months prior, and the family had been privately dealing with that admission while they filmed those first nine episodes.
To an observant viewer, it isn’t news that much of the show’s timeline is somewhere between fudged and fabricated: Blogs like Mariah Smith’s long-running Keeping Up With the Kontinuity Errors use paparazzi and social media photos to reveal what was filmed when, based on the sisters’ outfits and glam, so it’s not unusual to discover that the resolution to a conflict was filmed before the argument that supposedly kicked it off. But their willful silence around Caitlyn’s transition feels like something different, perhaps because it’s so consequential.
We all know that reality television is to a certain extent staged; on their own, life and human conversations happen too randomly and chaotically to make good television. But we allow for reshoots and setups because we trust that there’s an emotional authenticity to the scenes we end up seeing. The Kardashians have stopped shooting the show altogether only twice — once when Lamar Odom was hospitalized in Nevada after a drug overdose in 2015, and once when Kim was the victim of an armed robbery in Paris in 2016. That constancy is supposed to mean we get access to something unmediated amid all of their set pieces, that there is something like the actual truth that sneaks through despite their best efforts to tell us only the stories they want us to hear, how they want us to hear them. The episodes about Caitlyn prove that that simply isn’t the case.
In the early days of the show, it didn’t matter if the family’s dramas felt staged, because they were so low stakes; it was entertaining to watch Kendall and Kylie argue with Caitlyn about their allowance, and it didn’t seem like anyone expected us to actually believe that preteen Kendall had figured out how to hire a dog walker to do her chores for her. And either way, the show’s claim to emotional veracity was harder to disprove: Who were we to say that any of these people were anything other than what they presented themselves as?
These days, though, because their dramas are ripped from the headlines, we’re watching for access to some part of their internal emotional experience of those circumstances. But that’s exactly what they need to protect — both to maintain some sense of having a private self, and also because those emotions are likely too messy to make for good publicity, or a neat reality TV plotline.
The family can fudge timelines all they want, but ultimately, there has to be an appealing story to sell, and it seems that the Kardashians are running out of those. Kourtney has seemed interested in leaving the show for several years now; she announced she would be stepping back from filming in the spring of 2019, though she was back on the call sheet several months later. Tension between her and her sisters — primarily Kim and Khloé — escalated to the point of physical violence, in scenes that were heavily promoted and led off Season 18. The actual fight was spurred by Kim commenting that while she and Khloé would do appearances “on our deathbed,” Kendall, Kylie, and Kourtney were less committed to their work.
The family can fudge timelines all they want, but ultimately, there has to be an appealing story to sell, and it seems that the Kardashians are running out of those.
The fight itself was truly something to behold — both for the iconic moment when Kourtney slapped Kim’s bronzer onto the pristine white wall of Khloé’s house, but also because it felt like a rare moment of rawness on a show that has otherwise been carefully choreographed. In the scenes following the fight, when Kim and Kourtney had already been separated, the camera crew was suddenly visible in about half of the shots; instead of being set up in Khloé’s spacious bedroom, they were crammed into a narrow hallway, seemingly caught off guard.
After Kourtney left, Kim and Kendall laughed together and Kendall asked, “Wasn’t that our fight?” It’s unclear if she meant it literally — her argument with Kim touched off Kim’s with Kourtney — or rather spoke to what they’d all come to film that day: an argument between Kendall and Kim that would touch on Kylie’s work ethic. Either way, the scene felt more believable than most of what had preceded it.
That violence would be echoed early in Season 19, in one of the few episodes filmed before COVID-19 forced the family to reimagine how the show’s production worked. The fourth episode featured Kris crying about Kourtney and Kim’s fight, which she’d just seen for the first time on KUWTK, and closed with Kendall recounting an altercation between her and Kylie in a town car in Palm Springs, on their way home from a family vacation. During the episode, we don’t see footage of the fight, but we heard it on speakerphone as it unfolds. Kendall says that at one point, Kylie put the heel of her stiletto against her sister’s neck.
The idea that any of these women might want something else for themselves is not new, but the show has been able to reveal so much internal friction over the years because it always promised viewers that that friction was ultimately meaningless, a blip on the radar — Kylie shopping for ranches on her spinoff, 2017’s single-season Life of Kylie, or Kendall have panic attacks on airplanes. These moments were stressors to be dealt with, not symptoms of a fundamentally untenable way of being for the family. All of their sacrifices and hardships were meant to be redeemed by the simple fact that they would never actually quit their jobs as public figures, or ever change their behavior that much.
But hearing Kourtney say, “It seems like they put work and the show above my happiness” strikes at the core of the Kardashian myth, that all of their endless, obsessive work is good and aspirational, and that you can make your family your business without sacrificing something in the process. Watching the later seasons of the show, you can see the wear that being expected to work on your deathbed takes on a person — and how each of these women, toned and tanned and shiny-skinned as they are, has begun to unravel under that pressure in her own way.
Beyond that, the family is still dealing with what may be their biggest and most insoluble crisis yet in Kanye West’s ongoing mental health issues. West has spoken publicly about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and choosing not to medicate it. Last summer, he participated in confusing presidential campaign speeches and tweetstorms.
It’s not unusual for a Kardashian partner to be causing unwanted press for the family — see, again, Scott Disick, Tristan Thompson, and Lamar Odom for previous examples. (Though it feels worth noting here that Disick and Odom both have addictions, a disease that contributes to their behavior, just as West’s mental illness affects his.) Scott also long ago laid the groundwork for how to stay in the family, if that’s what you want to do: You apologize. You play along. You say whatever the family and the show need you to say. He has transformed from Kourtney’s sulky, difficult boyfriend to a willing sideshow clown, always up for whatever B-plot KUWTK producers need him to do in any given week, whether it’s pranking Kris with Khloé or convincing his son to lie about who broke one of Kris’s beloved antiques, and in so doing, he’s made a long-term career for himself as both a public figure and member of the family.
Before that, though, Kim broke the family’s silence on Kanye’s behavior with an Instagram post back in July 2020 that read in part, “Those that understand mental illness or even compulsive behavior know that the family is powerless unless the member is a minor. People who are unaware or far removed from this experience can be judgmental and not understand that the individual themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try.”
It is perhaps the first time a Kardashian/Jenner has ever publicly admitted to serious powerlessness. This is the storyline that Kim has no control over, that can’t be wrapped up in an outro interview laid over sentimental music. This is the truth of modern family life — of all family life: Sometimes love is not enough to keep it together. And while Kim may find a way to tell that story someday, Keeping Up With the Kardashians will simply never know how.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians is truly an ultimate postmodern media product: It’s a facsimile of real life that’s based on both what’s happening to its characters, and their need to react to and control other stories the media is telling about them. The show functions as a form of autofiction: something that retains the genre conventions of autobiography without its commitment to telling the truth. For the better part of 14 years, it has purported to give us access to the Kardashian/Jenner family while mostly serving as an advertisement for their aspirational lives.
The story they wanted to tell about themselves was that they were a family first; that myth was designed to obscure the ruthlessness of making your family your business and your daughters their own products.
But that story has been showing its wear for years now, and it’s long past time to retire it. Just as the Kardashian/Jenners don’t need Keeping Up to explain why they’re famous anymore, they don’t need the show to explain themselves to us either. Their place in the firmament of celebrity is assured for the foreseeable future, and after years of relying on a communal pool of fame, each member is assigned to her own category and company: Kourtney and her wellness website, Poosh; Kim’s focus on criminal justice reform (as well as her shapewear, makeup, and fragrance lines); Khloé’s denim brand Good American; Kendall’s modeling career; Kylie’s cosmetics and other mogul pursuits. Kris will remain buoyed by all of their success, a momager whose name will be included, implicitly or explicitly, in each of her daughters’ headlines.
The family will likely continue to build their wealth and they will continue to stay famous, but the core nucleus of the Kardashians is splitting off, allowing its women to have their own pursuits, just as they now have their own families. Ending KUWTK’s run allows them to take one last bow together before they scatter off camera, where it’s no one’s business but their own how they feel about one another. ●
Zan Romanoff is the author of the novels A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and the Fever out now, as well as Look. She’s a full-time freelance writer; her work has appeared in print and online for BuzzFeed, Eater, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in LA.