The Kardashian Forerunners
Yes, the Kardashians are self-made. But their path to fame would be far less clear without The Osbournes and The Anna Nicole Show.
2002 was a pivotal time in reality TV. Survivor was three seasons deep and already a cultural phenomenon. Fear Factor, a ratings hit in the summer of 2001, was returning for a second season of Joe Rogan goading contestants into eating live maggots. And two of the longest-running primetime reality juggernauts, American Idol and The Bachelor, premiered their inaugural seasons. But we are not here to talk about the impact of these shows. No, we are here today to discuss the often-overlooked significance of two reality shows that premiered in 2002 and were canceled before Obama was elected: The Anna Nicole Show and The Osbournes.
Though neither withstood the test of time on the air, both shows, like all great pioneers, ushered in a slew of protégés that took their torches and ran like Allyson Felix. And the most notable protégé of all? Keeping up with the Kardashians.
Think about it. Were it not for The Anna Nicole Show’s initial conceit — to observe the wacky life of a former Playmate whose fame was built on her bare back as a 1990s centerfold — Kim’s sex-tape-to-reality-star journey would be a lot less convincing. The Anna Nicole Show was unabashedly exploitative from the start, beginning as Anna grieved her billionaire nonagenarian husband’s death while juggling the effects of her weight gain on her waning sex-symbol persona. (“There’s three things people seem to think about me,” Anna says to the camera in the pilot. “They think I’m rich…. They think I’m a gold digger, and they think that I’m fat.”) The formula — shove a camera in the face of a tabloid staple as her life unravels and watch the chaos unfold — was a runaway success: The Anna Nicole Show’s premiere ratings marked the biggest debut for a reality show in cable history at the time, and the show was E!’s most-watched series throughout its first season. It was a winning mixture of raunch and celebrity voyeurism, one that was also the pitch for KUWTK five years later: get the real story behind Kim’s sex tape, with the added bonus of featuring her kooky family to help bolster storylines.
Just as Ozzy Osbourne, one of the greatest rock stars of his generation, anchored his civilian-yet-unconventional family on The Osbournes, Caitlyn Jenner brought an additional dash of star power to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. (If people didn’t tune in for Kim, surely they’d tune in to see one of the greatest Olympians of our time attempt to prevent Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé from participating in a Girls Gone Wild photo shoot!) The Osbournes’ influence on KUWTK wasn’t just spiritual, but literal: creator Ryan Seacrest has acknowledged that The Osbournes’ popularity drove him to create something in that vein after Kris Jenner expressed interest in featuring her family on a show.
What the Kardashians lacked in initial name recognition they made up for in sheer numbers. Unlike the Osbournes, whose show focused on the domestication of Ozzy, a slightly confused dad fumbling through life with his wife Sharon and children Kelly and Jack (Sharon and Ozzy’s eldest child Aimee declined to participate, as did Ozzy’s three other children from a previous marriage), the Kardashians had a backup family participating, too, in the form of the Jenners. With six children ranging from elementary school age to pushing 30 consistently appearing on the early seasons of the show (plus a boyfriend or two thrown in for good measure), KUWTK was able to tell a wider range of stories, from possibly leaked nudes to tweenage makeup disputes to work rifts, than either of its predecessors ever could. The ever-expanding cast of characters and storylines helped the show fit so seamlessly into the structure of an American family sitcom — the Los Angeles Times once called it a “Hollywood version of The Brady Bunch” — that you’d be forgiven for momentarily forgetting that its star was best known for having a sex tape.
Yet it’s Kris Jenner’s hunger to make Kim a star — and the entire family by proxy — off the back of it shines through in nearly every early interaction, from the obvious (Kim doing tape-related damage control on The Tyra Banks Show) to the still pretty obvious (when a very young Kylie Jenner makes headlines for swinging on the stripper pole in her parents’ bedroom). This sort of aspirational-yet-upsetting fare was, most importantly, extremely watchable. “The Kardashian show is not about an eccentric family living conventionally; it is purely about some desperate women climbing to the margins of fame, and that feels a lot creepier,” The New York Times wrote in its review of the premiere.
The hint of darkness is a clear holdover from the ethos of The Anna Nicole Show, which knew it was gross to capitalize on its own star’s struggles with addiction and body issues — The New York Times called the show “a cruel joke of a series” and compared the audience to bystanders wanting to continue watching a car wreck — yet did it anyway. But the energy behind Anna Nicole’s portrayal mixed with her premature death of a drug overdose in 2007, coincidentally the same year KUWTK premiered, was simply too dark for the show to ever be considered more than a one-trick pony.
Unfortunately, not all would remain well with the Kardashians as the years passed. The family struggled with divorces, fertility issues, a near-fatal robbery, gender transitioning, health crises, cheating, fighting, and so on; each one a real issue, yet also a storyline on E!. That is, until KUWTK went off the air in 2021, only to rise from the ashes in the form of a new show on Hulu: The Kardashians.
Does that name sound familiar? Perhaps the family has simply outgrown the first three words from the title of the show that made them famous, or perhaps they’re paying homage to the show titles of their predecessors. After all, the Kardashian-Jenners are no longer simply strivers hoping a sex tape would lead to a big break, but legitimately famous multi-millionaires. And like the Osbournes and Anna Nicole Smith in 2002, they no longer have to justify their existence as TV personalities, or their worthiness of fame. Point a camera at them, and they are simply The Kardashians. And they’re doing amazing, sweetie.