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The series finale of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which aired on Thursday night, did not come a moment too soon. In fact, there’s a case to be made that it was overdue.
Technically the second installment of a two-part finale, the episode picks up where last week’s left off. The Kardashian-Jenner clan, minus Rob, plus Scott and Corey, has gathered in a giant Lake Tahoe rental home for one last vacation together on the show. Kris Jenner repeatedly refers to it as their last family trip, full-stop, as if the group will have no reason to vacation together once the cameras stop rolling.
As in the last episode, which involved a scavenger hunt and a Secret Santa exchange of gifts related to iconic moments from the show, they are playing obviously orchestrated games that allow for smooth transitions into flashbacks to earlier episodes. Khloe is filming her own home videos of her siblings for a time capsule she plans to bury in Kim’s yard. They watch fireworks and talk to each other about how much they’ll miss the show, all decked out in expensive-looking loungewear. It’s your typical boring series finale fare.
Not even fans of the Kardashians will find anything interesting or revelatory in this finale. The show is so tangential to their fame now, which exists largely on social media and in their entrepreneurial ventures, that it doesn’t have anything new to say. It hasn’t for years. Once, the Kardashians were unique in the way they shared every moment of their lives with viewers—just look at Kourtney, who gave birth to her son Mason with an entire camera crew in the delivery room.
Now, the famous family can’t leave home without being papped, let alone keep news of divorces, relationships, and pregnancies under wraps. With hundreds of millions of Instagram followers, they clog social feeds with snapshots of their children and partners. This renders the show’s dramatic story arcs, like whether Kim and Kanye will split up (they will) and whether Kourtney and Scott will get back together (they won’t, because she’s dating Travis Barker and he’s dating a 19-year-old), irrelevant. It’s a natural end to a show they don’t need anymore.
The most striking takeaway from the Keeping Up with the Kardashians series finale is just how effective the titular family’s rabid, wholly transparent pursuit of fame really was. A tired critique of the Kardashians, often leveled snobbishly by people who have never watched the show, is that they are famous for being famous. This is obviously no longer true and maybe it never was. They’re famous for helming million-dollar makeup empires, for coupling up with rappers and athletes, for sharing heavily filtered photos on Instagram, and, of course, for appearing on a hit television show for over a decade. If that means the Kardashians are famous simply for being famous, then the same can be said of countless other popular celebrities. To be honest, the Kardashians deserve much of the credit for originating the brand of social media celebrity that dominates pop culture today, for better or worse.
What sets the Kardashians apart from overnight TikTok stars is that their ascent to fame was intentional, laborious, and often desperate. We know this because it was diligently documented by E! producers. Even as a longtime viewer of the show, however, I had forgotten that they were not always the stone-faced, inconceivably wealthy Yeezy-ads-come-to-life crew that they are now, spending entire episodes eating salads and FaceTiming each other from mansions resembling modern art museums. The objective of Thursday night’s finale, under the guise of a sentimental trip down memory lane, seems to be to remind viewers of the, ahem, humble beginnings of reality TV’s royal family and to celebrate how far they’ve come.
Clearly, I say that with a heavy dose of sarcasm. The Kardashian-Jenner brood has always been wealthy, always on the cusp of the Los Angeles celebrity scene (lest we forget: Kim once held a job as Paris Hilton’s closet organizer). But when they first appeared on our TVs 14 years ago, the family was not what anyone would call famous. The flashbacks in this final episode capture just how different the show was when its stars didn’t take themselves too seriously, before Kim developed lawyerly aspirations and Kylie could pocket over a million dollars for one sponsored Instagram post.
In a flashback to a season three episode, for example, Kim, a notoriously unskilled and reluctant dancer, performs with the Pussycat Dolls in Vegas. In another, Khloe has the idea to make a “love tape” for then-husband Lamar Odom and poses nude in a bathtub filled with candy while a friend films her on a Flip Video camera—an obvious instance of product placement.
Flashbacks like these recall a time when, under the guidance of momager Kris, the Kardashians seemingly said “yes” to every photoshoot, appearance, and brand deal they were offered, from Carl’s Jr. to Sketchers. There was a disastrous prepaid debit card venture, the Kardashian Kard, dubbed “the worst credit card ever.” Kim even hosted the opening of Charmin-sponsored public restrooms in Times Square in 2010. And of course: the “leaked” sex tape that helped kick things off. The endearingly trashy, unabashedly fame-thirsty women in the old footage included in the finale hardly resemble the ones in the present-day scenes, and not just because of the cosmetic surgeries they’ve undergone. Perhaps what bothers some people so much about the Kardashians is that their ploys for stardom worked so well.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of people who dislike the Kardashians for legitimate reasons. There’s no shortage of Kardashian Kontroversies that warrant criticism and I’d be remiss not to mention them. Between the constant cultural appropriation, shilling of dangerous weight-loss products, and shameless flouting of COVID-19 health advisories (see: Kim’s 40th birthday bash), it’s like a bingo card of PR fuckups. And yet, like acrylic nail-taloned phoenixes, they emerge from each scandal relatively unscathed.
“This show made us who we are,” Kim says halfway through the episode. However cliche, her reflection glimmers with truth. The show, with some help from social media, took a little-known family and transformed it into an inescapable cultural phenomenon. The Keeping Up with the Kardashians series finale most definitely does not mark the end of the Kardashians. Instead, Thursday night’s episode signifies the end of a 14-year televised experiment in manufacturing modern celebrity, one that—for better or for worse—has proven to be an undeniable success.