“When it really comes down to it, the most important thing is family.” —Kim Kardashian
For many people, the hit E! reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians has come to represent everything wrong with American culture. Recently returned from the tenth season’s summer hiatus, the Kardashians are back to the globetrotting, red-carpet attending ways that have earned them such scorn. And yet I have to wonder if those who condemn the Kardashians have ever actually watched their show. Underneath its shiny surface of material excess and celebrity worship, the series has much more in common with a family sitcom than a soap opera. Far from The Bad Girls Club, Keeping Up with the Kardashians is basically the reality-TV equivalent of The Brady Bunch.
In fact, most Kardashians episodes follows a similar basic structure: The Kardashians—specifically sisters Kourtney, Khloé, Kim, and their half-siblings Kendall and Kylie Jenner—show off their privileged lifestyle and maybe get into one or two minor family squabbles before ultimately wrapping things up with a monologue that reinforces the importance of family. It’s Modern Family with (slightly) bigger houses.
The fact that the Kardashians have been so publicly supportive during Caitlyn Jenner’s transition should surprise no one—loyalty is the Kardashian brand. From the very first episode, the family—or at least the characters they play on TV—have eschewed the trashy drama of The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore and instead built a reality TV empire based on empathy and humor.
Take this Sunday’s episode, in which Kylie and Kendall get into a fight after Kendall doesn’t follow through on a promise to help her little sister field red-carpet interview questions about Caitlyn’s transition. While it’s easy to scoff at the glamorous circumstances of this tiff, this kind of sibling tension is universal and oddly relatable. The episode ends—unsurprisingly—with Kendall apologizing for prioritizing work over family, and promising to be there for her little sister in the future.
Likewise, KUWTK is the rare TV show unapologetically centered on female friendships and sisterhood, as Libby Hill breaks down over at The AV Club. While those relationships exist in a glitzy world, the biggest appeal of the show is that the girls never actually take themselves too seriously. And as sitcoms like Frasier, Arrested Development, and Black-ish prove, the problems of the rich make great fodder for comedy, especially if the rich people seem in on the joke.
While it’s far from didactic, KUWTK isn’t interested in promoting or whitewashing bad behavior either. The episode centered on Kendall’s “Sweet 16” wasn’t about her sneaking off to drink, but about her kicking out underage kids who brought alcohol to her party. Meanwhile, (in-law) Scott Disick’s struggle with addiction has been one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating plot lines of the series.
On the whole, Keeping Up with the Kardashians is successful because it’s able to walk the line between silly and weird, self-aware and honest—whether it’s Scott making prank phone calls, (mother) Kris attempting to hold on to a freaked out chicken, or Kourtney deadpanning, “Kim, there’s people that are dying,” while her sister breaks down in hysterics over a lost earring.
In last week’s mid-season premiere, Kim’s husband Kanye West made a rare appearance on the show as he joined the Kardashians on a trip to Armenia. While visiting a local music school, he instructed the cameraman to set up a particularly artsy shot across a long table. “I’m trying to get them to film the show like Stanley Kubrick,” he explained nonchalantly to his tour guide. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard at a fourth wall joke since the heyday of The Office.
Yes, the Kardashians were once “famous for being famous,” but today they’re famous for creating and starring in a surprisingly entertaining reality show. And honestly, in a world full of rich people doing uncouth things on TV, the Kardashians’ family values are starting to look downright wholesome. Carol Brady would be proud.