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Hulu's 'The Kardashians' continues a modern saga: a family famous for being famous

Kim Kardashian during a family party in Hulu's <em>The Kardashians.</em>
Kim Kardashian during a family party in Hulu's The Kardashians.

I never really understood why viewers showed up to watch the Kardashians until I saw Hulu's The Kardashians.

Picking up with the celebrity clan less than a year after their signature series Keeping Up with The Kardashians left the air — after 20 seasons on the E! channel – Hulu's show often feels like a better filmed version the show they just stopped doing. Which means it also still showcases the elements of reality TV that irritate me most as a critic.

Hate the way they make mundane events look like momentous occasions? See the production treat a family barbecue like a summit at Yalta. Irritated by the way supposedly off-the-cuff moments feel like scenes painfully choreographed for TV cameras? Watch Kim, Khloe and Kourtney gather in a public restaurant – whose front sign is prominently featured in a bit of product placement as the scene ends – to gossip loudly about the size of certain women's, um, personal equipment.

"I hate talking about myself," says Kim, a woman who has amassed a media empire by talking about herself and her family on camera for more than a decade. In other moments, various family members talk about how refreshing it was to have a break from living life in public, with no words devoted to why they jumped back in front of the cameras again, less than a year after the last series ended.

There's a lot that gets on my nerves about The Kardashians, without a doubt.

But it's also true that this family helped pioneer the modern shape of so-called reality TV, building a franchise that both perpetuates and feeds off their collective celebrity in a way that is compelling to behold. Even now.

Kim humanizes and energizes 'The Kardashians'

At the center of all this is Kim Kardashian, the most famous family member and the person who most embodies this bizarre dynamic.

In the two episodes released early to critics — the first of which dropped on Hulu Thursday — it's Kim whose life elevates The Kardashians into something more compelling than the latest unscripted soap opera wrapped around a C-list celebrity family.

That happens minutes into the first episode, when the Kardashian family get-together is disrupted after Kim's son Saint playfully shows his mother the online game Roblox on his tablet computer, featuring an image of her crying – seemingly unaware that the image also promotes the release of previously unseen footage from the sex tape which made her famous in 2007.

The moment shatters the "stars are just like us" vibe of their meal, calling back to the original scandal which Kim and "momager" Kris Jenner eventually leveraged into the first season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It also highlights the devil's bargain of these shows – trading public embarrassment and shame for an exploitable notoriety – while also leaving you to wonder how a preschool-age kid got hold of a tablet which can access that kind of material in the first place.

And just when you're ready to hate on a woman who admits she can't sing, dance or act yet gets a murderer's row of comics to help her prep for SNL, The Kardashians humanizes Kim.

Filmed sometime last year, Hulu's episodes might feel like old news to fans – Kylie Jenner refuses to tell her family the sex of her child, for instance, but anyone following press reports knows she had a baby boy in February. Still, Kim's seemingly effortless glamour appears to offer a backstage peek at stuff we've already seen play out publicly.

It's Kim who drops news during the family get together that she has agreed to host Saturday Night Live (which she actually did in October), later casually referencing that "Dave" (Chappelle) and future beau Pete Davidson gave her advice and joke suggestions. And it's Kim who actually sits down on camera with Oscars co-host Amy Schumer to read over monologue jokes written for her by Michelle Wolf.

And just when you're ready to hate on a woman who admits she can't sing, dance or act — yet gets a murderer's row of comics to help her prep for SNL — The Kardashians humanizes Kim. We see her freak out over the legal wrangling regarding this possible new sex tape, while fretting about what she'll do on SNL, and negotiating new boundaries with the husband she is divorcing, Kanye West.

Stars. Sometimes, they are nothing like us, it turns out.

Anyone with access to news headlines over the past six months knows how badly an unstable Ye will eventually handle their breakup. But in Hulu's first two episodes, Kim is telling others how an unseen, unheard Kanye is vowing to attend her SNL performance in support, connecting her with Chappelle and offering to quit his own career and serve as her fulltime stylist.

Stars. Sometimes, they are nothing like us, it turns out.

How real is the reality on 'The Kardashians?'

Through it all, because of the duplicitous nature of so-called reality TV, it is difficult to know how to process any of this. The family once admitted that the exterior shots of homes used in Keeping Up with the Kardashians were not of their own houses – Kim explained the tactic kept fans from figuring out where they lived.

But the upshot was that every outside establishing shot with those fake exteriors was a lie to viewers. Are they continuing the lie on Hulu, where the first episode features a stylized drone-style shot that seemingly moves through family members' homes?

Social media is filled with theories from fans about which moments from the E! series were completely contrived but presented to viewers as genuine. (For me, the moment when Rob Kardashian drank a cup of coffee supposedly dosed with Viagra by his mother and intended for her then-spouse didn't quite pass the smell test.) Are there similar scenes in The Kardashians?

It remains to be seen how deeply the show will delve into Kim's increasingly contentious divorce from Kanye. Or the troubles of Kylie's partner, rapper Travis Scott, who performed during a mass casualty crowd crush event last year at the Astroworld Festival he founded. Or the story of superstar drummer and reality TV veteran Travis Barker, who held a marriage ceremony with Kourtney Kardashian without a licenseafter the Grammy awards last week.

And the number of troubling social trends this family embodies, from accusations of cultural appropriation, to Kendall Jenner's disastrous 2017 Pepsi commercial(she offered a cop a drink during a protest), and, of course, the decadence of earning wealth and fame largely by shrewdly exploiting their notoriety.

Honestly, if you hated this family before now, Hulu's The Kardashians won't change your mind. And some fans will likely find this show something of a rehash, centered on incidents that have already been picked apart by TMZ and People magazine months ago. I'm also still trying to figure out why a show distributed on adult-oriented streamer Hulu bleeps out the curse words.

But it is also true there is still something quite compelling – and disturbingly of the moment – about watching a family whose business is being famous go about their business on camera.

And what is obvious after two episodes of Hulu's The Kardashians, is that no family on TV does that business quite so well as this clan.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.