The final season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, a show that has been on for 15 years, went out after 20 seasons with a classic Kardashian set piece: a family trip of the sort that is tradition, in a 17,000 square foot house in Tahoe. “I found it on this site called Vrbo,” Kourtney says, at the top of the penultimate episode, tapping a manicured finger on her iPhone screen— a savvy bit of product placement that is as audacious as the Kardashians themselves, but is also demonstrative of how their power and influence have grown. When the show premiered in 2007, Kim Kardashian was Paris Hilton’s assistant and the co-star of a sex tape featuring her then-boyfriend Ray J. When the show ended on Thursday night, after 20 seasons on E!, the Kardashian women stood alone. It’s not that a man made her who she is, but it is notable that at the end, the matriarchy that is the show’s powerful engine was still strong.
By now, even those who do not routinely keep up with Kris Jenner’s Calabasas money makers are familiar with the way the program operates. But as the Kardashians’ collective power became more influential, the tabloids began reporting out what was happening in real-time before the episodes aired, creating a kind of symbiotic moneymaking enterprise on all sides. The show is inherently anachronistic, a fact that became part of the experience of watching the show itself. Real-life storylines played out on television months after they occurred, edited to fit specific narratives and interspersed with what feel like semi-manufactured B-plots meant to communicate relatability.
That explains the lackluster final season, which felt stale in a way that was almost sad. Nostalgia drove most of the narrative, colliding with the current in ways that no longer felt interesting or of any arguable value. The show encountered the pandemic halfway through the season, and sometime after Kim’s blowout 40th birthday party on a private island in the Maldives, Kim and her son Saint contracted covid-19. Kim also took the baby bar while in the throes of her illness; she failed the exam but recovered from the virus with little to no issue. “The worst thing that happened to me was this,” she said in the first part of the two-part finale, vlogging from her quarantine suite in her palatial, cold home. “I’m so excited to get out.”
Surely it was a canny decision on the part of the producers and the family to participate in a family trip, as it is excellent sponsored content for Vrbo and it continued the family’s mission, which is to diminish their fame to prove that deep down, they’re just regular people. Khloé was insistent that the family leaves a time capsule for themselves to find in 15 to 20 years, as if the footage of their time in the public eye will not exist. It’s not like the Kardashians are going anywhere, really—even though they’ve ended their time at E!, they’ve signed a deal with Hulu. Andy Cohen will be hosting a two-part reunion special on E!, set to air over the next two weeks. The Kardashians are not leaving us, for better or for worse. But whatever their output is on Hulu will likely be different than their sitcom-esque reality show on E! They outgrew the show long ago, participating gamely in the last few seasons as if performing a parody of themselves.
Having been on TV for 15 years, and watching your life, family, and body become a commodity is a lot to process. As such, the finale featured a weird nostalgia trip, a scavenger hunt, and a game of charades that requires the women to remember their lives through the lens of the show, not as it actually happened. After 15 years, this sort of thought exercise should come naturally; the Kardashians have been on the air since the youngest of Kris’s daughters, Kylie, was nine years old. “Honestly, we don’t remember much because we were so young,” Kendall says in a confessional. Thank god the show will be in reruns in perpetuity so that the two youngest members can watch their childhoods whenever they want.
It seems like viewers were supposed to think the central storyline in this messy and boring final season was the Scott and Kourtney reconciliation, which started with Scott’s desire to reconnect, but fizzled out because Kourtney, not yet entangled with Travis Barker, didn’t think he’d done the work. I expected to feel something other than neutral, but remembering the time Disick shoved a wad of money into a waiter’s mouth erased any sort of goodwill I might have harbored. Arguably, their relationship has been the longest and Scott feels like more part of the family than Rob, the lone brother, who has rightfully distanced himself from his family’s source of income. Scott’s trepidation about the show ending is a thread that runs through the final season, because it means the end of his support system. Now that filming is off the table as an obligation, the family is allowed to finally unhook themselves from each other, but the intimacy that exists doesn’t go away just because the job they’re doing has ended. Boundaries, something the Kardashians could use if they were so inclined, might be drawn in the future, but that is finally their business. The public will be able to still infer clues about their relationships even though the show will be over, because their role in the culture is firmly established.
Once the Kardashians started making headlines during the off-season, what happened on the show itself started to matter less and less. At its best, the show is excellent background noise, perfect television for tuning in and then tuning immediately out. The novelty wore off long ago, but the show was too much of a cash cow to give up, and now because everyone is ready to get on with their lives. Khloé made the decision to move to Boston to be with Tristan, Kourtney decided not to hitch her wagon to Scott, and Kim continues on with the divorce that, in real-time now, is basically already done. The show is immediately irrelevant, and keeping up the facade must be tiring. But the Kardashians have outgrown their frame. They no longer need us, but really, they never did. At the end of the day, they will always have each other.