The novelist and journalist Daphne Merkin is the latest writer to take on the phenomenon of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the hugely popular E! reality show that launched the megafamous Kardashian family, in the Times' T magazine. Merkin has a somewhat more simplistic yet rarely articulated stance on the family: They're just quite likable. (It's particularly notable that the Kardashian family makes Merkin feel warm; that's no small feat, in light of her recent Times magazine cover stories — the first, "A Journey Through Darkness," about her life-long battle with depression, the second, "My Life in Therapy," about the same subject.)
First, Merkin proves the TV show's significant popularity: "The show finished its fifth season in October, with 4.7 million viewers tuning in for the season premiere, a record for the E! network." (Executive producer Kevin Burns said: "Its ratings rival network ratings.") But Merkin rules out the tired question, "Why are they famous?"
So the larger question isn’t what it is, exactly, that the Kardashians are famous for — that’s so pre-Warhol — but rather how they get it all done, from marriages to childbirth to breakups to shopping sprees to running the business of being themselves, all with perfectly blown-out hair.
Instead, T claims Kardashians is just an addictive and endearing series, comparing it to HBO's The Sopranos rather than the Real Housewives franchise:
To attribute the astonishing popularity of the series to its glittering, high-end context alone would be to sell the show short. Its strongest appeal, it seems to me, is its “Little Women” sisterhood theme ... [and] the “Sopranos”-like element of Mediterranean ethnicity; It is unembarrassedly earthy, sexy, loud, honest, coarse, passionate, colorful, grotesque — you name it ... Although we tune in partly out of prurient curiosity and a sense of superiority, we stick with the show because we become invested despite ourselves ... The point is that we’re caught up in the unfolding drama, rooting and hissing and wondering how things are going to turn out.
Essentially, then, what's good about Kardashians is what's good about any TV show, according to T: Emotional investment in the characters, and interest in the story lines, rather than some ironic, inexplicable appeal unique to reality television or to the Kardashians, whose fame seems to baffle many. Now if only more people would admit that Snooki can be intentionally funny and sweet sometimes, and it's not always about mocking her.
The Wild Bunch [T/NYT]