Say what you will about the Kardashians, but they know how to put their stamp on a medium. When Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered on E! in 2007, it redefined reality television and the celebrity landscape, ushering in an era of “famous for being famous” TV stars, influencers, and media personalities.
15 years and one jump to streaming later, the ever-expanding family has done it again with The Kardashians, which concludes its second season on Hulu this week. Though the subject matter remains the same, The Kardashians is quietly revolutionizing reality television with its complete disregard for the fourth wall and its eagerness — more than just a willingness — to be self-referential, practices that have long been taboo in the genre.
From the beginning, The Kardashians displayed a desire to toy with convention by directly addressing moments playing out onscreen. In the first episode, Kris tells the group that Kendall will be missing their family barbecue because she’s “got the flu,” a remark that elicits hardly any response from those seated at the table. But rather than leave it at that, the show smash-cuts to Kendall’s talking head interview. “I actually didn’t have the flu,” she says, speaking directly to the audience. “I had COVID, and it sucked. But you know what? You’re going to get me for the rest of the season anyways. And I will be here, so don’t you worry.”
Kendall’s admission serves to both correct her mother and placate concerned viewers, contributing to the sense that The Kardashians is a living document, rather than just a rehash of events filmed months prior. The moment is the first time producers embrace the idea that the show itself is as much a character as Kim or Khloé, but over the course of the first season, they wholly commit to it.
In a remarkable moment in Episode 9, Kourtney smashes through the fourth wall and expresses her immense disappointment that the show gave so much airtime to her ex-boyfriend, Scott Disick, during an episode centered on her engagement to Travis Barker. “[Travis and I] film and have the best time ever, and then we’ve been watching the edits, and we’re just so annoyed because they’re swirling us in with this drama,” Kourtney tells a friend. “When I saw my engagement episode, editors or whoever [are] taking it as, ‘Let’s take Kourtney. She’s the chosen one to be the drama.’”
In a talking head interview, Kourtney explains that she and her sisters are all executive producers on The Kardashians, so they get to “see cuts” and “give notes on episodes.” The implication is that Kourtney’s notes were ignored in favor of including the Scott moment, and she accuses her fellow producers of “buying into something that doesn’t really exist” by diverting attention away from her engagement. “It should be an empowering episode about me getting out of toxic relationships and really having this fairytale love story,” she says. “I wish they would take that out and put it in the next episode, and give us our respect and let us have our moment.”
Kourtney’s airing of grievances goes way beyond Denise Richards’ “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!” moment, in which The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star attempted to fight back against a rapidly-solidifying “villain edit” by alerting viewers to the camera’s presence. Here, Kourtney not only reminds fans that the show exists, but points to specific ways in which it’s purposely misrepresenting aspects of her life, thereby calling into question the authenticity of the entire endeavor. Paradoxically, in highlighting its skewed depiction of reality, Kourtney makes The Kardashians feel even more real: It’s as if we’re being let in on a secret about how the sausage is made, even if that sausage rankles, at times.
Season 2 continues this trend by pulling back the curtain on what made it into the final cut, and what the sisters deliberately withheld (and why). The bulk of the season was filmed in Spring 2022, but the premiere jumps forward in time to July as Khloé reveals she’s about to have a baby with Tristan Thompson, her ex-boyfriend, via surrogate. In the opening moments of the episode, Khloé weighs the pros and cons of publicly discussing the traumatic experience of learning Tristan fathered a child with another woman just days after transferring a fertilized embryo to their surrogate.
Kim found out about Tristan’s infidelity on camera — the moment was captured in the Season 1 finale — and Khloé, in a confessional, explains that she instructed her sister to get off speakerphone so she could break the baby news in private. “There was just something I wasn’t ready to talk about,” says Khloé, her voice breaking in a way that feels as if she’s apologizing to the audience as much as she is to producers off-screen.
The self-reflexive attitude manifests itself in later episodes, as when Kim explains why Pete Davidson, her boyfriend at the time, won’t appear regularly on the show — “This is my job. This isn’t his job.” — and the Kar-Jenners attend the premiere of The Kardashians. Scenes filmed at the premiere play like Russian nesting dolls of meta content: As the pilot screens for a large crowd, the sisters reflect on the experience of “living the show, and then watching the show in real time with viewers,” all while maintaining an awareness that they’re creating content for a future season. A cousin even tells Kim that the show “will change reality TV,” to which Kim responds, “Again?”
After two seasons of throwing reality TV conventions out the window, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The Kardashians challenges our prevailing notions about what’s “real” and raises questions about how celebrities portray themselves to the public. The Kardashian-Jenners have always gone out of their way to control the narrative, whether that means aggressively editing Instagram photos or scrubbing the internet of unflattering content, and in some instances, the self-referential moments in the show reflect this, as with Khloé’s hesitancy to discuss Tristan’s infidelity and her surrogacy. Others, though, put the limit of their power on full display: Despite Kourtney’s protests, the Scott discussion makes it through to the final cut.
Still, even when things don’t go the sisters’s way, this is their show, and reframing The Kardashians through a self-aware lens allows them to have the final say over their carefully constructed chaos. But no matter how chaotic things get, make no mistake: It’s still carefully constructed.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.