There is a scene, somewhere in the middle of the four-part series, Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event, in which the three Kardashian sisters await the first glimpse of their mother Kris’s new face-lift. She keeps them waiting in her kitchen, and they become impatient. “Everything in this family is an extravaganza,” Khloe says, affectionately.
“I would like to think of myself as the biggest extravaganza of them all,” replies Kim, who at the time was in the midst of planning her wedding. She does not look up from her laptop screen, and no one responds. A few months later, she would be married to NBA free agent Kris Humphries in a $10 million wedding that reportedly earned her more than $17 million in profit; on Monday, she filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences” — 72 days after the wedding.
Around 8 million people watched the installments of her Fairytale Wedding on television in early October; more still took to Twitter yesterday to make their #occupykimkardashian and #ThingsLongerThanKimsMarriage jokes. The Post’s front page today referred to the nuptials as a “Big A$$ Sham.” We may tolerate televised spectacles, but we’re affronted when they’re just as publicly unmasked. The interplay between audience and reality star acknowledges our complicity: We’re equal partners in the extravaganza and the collapse. And we don’t like to come out feeling like the chumps in that exchange.
The Kardashian backlash has more than a little in common with what happened to Kris Humphries’s NBA colleague LeBron James when he joined the Miami Heat. Two summers ago, James staged "The Decision" — a sort of Fairytale Wedding for the hoops set. James, then a free agent who had just finished seven years under contract with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, turned his free agent moment into a speculative spectacle that lasted for months, culminating in a live ESPN interview in which he announced that he would take his talents to South Beach for a smaller contract and a better shot at an NBA title. The clumsy production was immediately torn apart, James and the Heat were vilified throughout his debut season, and his reputation has never recovered. Fans were left doubled over by a self-reflective gut-punch, wondering, as Will Leitch wrote in these pages, Why in the world are we watching these awful people?
James’s unforgivable act was to deviate from the script we wanted from him, not to mention that it was terrible television — and that’s a sin that Kim Kardashian, her sisters, and her frighteningly powerful mom–manager Kris Jenner have never really committed until now. The Kardashians have built their following by carefully curating the barest semblance of believability: Kris’s daughters have fallen in love, gotten engaged, given birth, and gotten married with E!’s cameras in the room. And just often enough, they’ve broken through the fourth wall and acknowledged the extravaganza-ness of it all.
The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the divorce papers suggests the Kardashians have crossed over into LeBron territory. The backlash isn’t quite as bad (since, you know, sports are far more serious than a wedding), but the family should have heeded the lesson of "The Decision" when James tried to pretend that his reality television wasn’t reality television at all. When the hour-long segment aired, we got to see both the puppet and the strings that operated it, and that took all of the fun out of the charade. Kim’s Fairytale Wedding, it is now understood — even if it should have been all along — was, for 72 days, the worst show the Kardashians ever made.
Kim Kardashian is now back to the script, and she will do her best to prove that she is sad and heartbroken over her failed marriage. It may be some time before we get another sidelong, conspiratorial glance like that moment in her mother’s kitchen, and that’s too bad. We should know by now that extravaganzas are a collaborative act, and that televised sincerity a deliberate two-step between the person in front of the camera and the person in front of the television. Deception is assumed to be part of the game, but TV is never supposed to show the strings.