How 'Keeping Up' Fell Behind

The Kardashian family's collective social-media presence has become their real show

This past week on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kylie Jenner and her sisters Kendall Jenner and Khloe Kardashian boarded a Hollywood tour bus disguised as sightseers from Albuquerque. As with a lot of what happens on KUWTK from week to week, it was a contrived stunt framed in heart-tugging, emotionally relatable terms: The siblings Jenner, who literally can’t remember a time when tabloid photographers weren’t a presence in their lives, long for the comparatively anonymous childhoods their older sisters experienced. They decide to go incognito (with the help of professional-grade prosthetic makeup) to experience what life is like to order a 6-inch at Subway without cameras registering your request for pickles — but documented the entire afternoon for Snapchat, just in case. “We’re going to post on social media so that we get the story out there first,” explained Kylie, staring blankly into the lens.

She was talking about the paparazzi, but she might as well have been referring to the show that made her famous enough to need a secret identity in the first place. The Kardashian-Jenner dynasty’s ever-expanding social-media presence now scoops their television show with regularity. By the time the May 8 episode showed us the clan, dressed in crystals and custom white-and-peach furs, rolling up to Madison Square Garden for the February unveiling of Kanye West’s third Yeezy collection and his album The Life of Pablo, devotees had probably seen them make that entrance at least once before, perhaps on Kylie’s Snapchat, or on Yeezus’s own live stream of the show. After months of Twitter and Instagram comments accusing Kylie Jenner of trying to clone herself into a miniature version of her sister Kim, the two bent time and space when they face-swapped on Snapchat in February; then, a few weeks back, we saw them do it again on TV. In a few months, KUWTK will undoubtedly recap the chaos that ensued when West announced and then canceled a 2 a.m. appearance at New York’s Webster Hall, perhaps including the moment where Kim live-snaps her husband attempting to get the mayor’s office to authorize a block party.

For the better part of a decade, the show — which debuted on E! a year after Twitter launched and three years before Instagram did — operated in perfect stage-managed harmony with the family’s real-world presence. Kim timed the announcement of both of her pregnancies to the premiere of KUWTK episodes in which she tells her sisters she’s expecting; after months of rumors and speculation, Kylie went public with her relationship with rapper Tyga on Instagram and Snapchat immediately after KUWTK broadcast an episode about her 18th-birthday party. (“They say she young, I should’ve waited / She a big girl, dog, when she stimulated,” Tyga rapped not long after that, on a creepy mixtape cut we should all endeavor to wipe from our brain-slates, Men in Black–style.)

But if watching Keeping Up is starting to give you severe déjà vu, you’re not alone. A reality show that once promised us Total Kardashian Awareness now functions as bonus material, offering alternate views of events that Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kendall, Kylie, Kris, Caitlyn, and Rob have already shared months earlier on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and a suite of highly lucrative fan apps. (We’re not set to get a glimpse inside the lives and relationship of Rob and his fiancée, Blac Chyna, until later this year, when their six-part docuseries premieres on E!, but we’ve been sampling from its intimacy buffet since the moment their relationship began; anyone who follows @robphuckedme has watched the couple evolve from flirty first-base face-licking to indoor Nerf gunfights in the Calabasas mini-mansion they now share.)

During the taping of this season, Kim and Khloe joined their three sisters on Snapchat, bringing the platform to peak Kardashian. Not long after signing up, Kim shared shots of the crew, their cameras pointed at her, her scribblings over the image calling them pervs and stalkers. Over the last year, we’ve seen plenty of snaps of Kylie heading to set, in full glam, to record talking-head interviews for the show. We’ve entered a hall of mirrors, where every family workout session is broadcast from all angles on Khloe’s, Kylie’s, and Kourtney’s accounts, with the E! camera crew caught lurking in the background. We saw footage from one of those training sessions in this week’s episode. Still to come this season are Rob’s St. Patrick’s Day birthday party; the family Easter breakfast for which Tyga and Kanye dressed as bunnies; Scott’s reunion with the real Todd Kraines; and the final episode of Kocktails With Khloe — all events we’ve already seen unfold in real time.

In a late-May KUWTK episode tellingly titled “All About Meme,” nearly every plotline stems from the family’s interaction with social media and how it shapes their interactions with one another. The episode opens with footage of Kylie and Khloe recording a segment for Kylie’s app, accompanied by Kylie’s friend Harry Hudson, a pop singer whose fame has risen exponentially since he became a regular fixture in the background of Kylie’s Snapchat broadcasts. Later, Kourtney meets Kim and Khloe at their mother’s house and asks them if they saw her latest Instagram. She then goes to lunch with Kendall, who is home in L.A. after a long stretch of time overseas and complains about finding out that her sisters are hanging out without her because of the photos they share. Meanwhile, Kim wades into the Rob-Chyna-Tyga-Kylie love quadrangle, which becomes more contentious each time one of them posts a passive-aggressive subtweet (or subgram or subsnap) in response to somebody else.

Between the Blac Chyna controversy and the rise of the family’s glam-team leaders Joyce Bonelli and Jen Atkin — who are, like Hudson, former background players whose TV-enhanced social-media fame has now earned them prime camera time on the show itself — the Kardashian panopticon has become a writhing human ouroboros. In one particularly rich scene from “All About Meme,” Kim visits Khloe on set to discuss the nasty Instagram content Rob has been posting about the family, including a now-deleted text post saying, “When the pussy good but your family don’t like her so you drop your family and become an orphan.” Kim then calls Rob (on speaker phone, so we can all listen in) to remind him that their family already endures plenty of hate from the outside world. “[T]his is not what our family does,” she tells him. “Everyone has to just not be blasting people on social media.” It’s essential for them to present a united front online, even if the show will eventually reveal the cracks we all intuited months earlier.

With his new fiancée by his side and their first baby on the way, Rob appears poised to wrest some control of his narrative back from the women whose homes he lived in invisibly for the last few years. In their forthcoming docuseries, we’ll hear from him — and more importantly and fascinatingly, from Chyna — what it was like to become the Kardashian clan’s wild-card entry in the Most Exciting Couple sweepstakes. But if the traditional-media arm of the Kardashian brand is going to truly keep up with its subjects’ social-media streams, the family and their producers will need to reevaluate what they’re willing to show. What we don’t see on KUWTK — what we’ve never been granted permission to see — are the events that keep the wheels spinning. Scott getting his picture taken with his Bootea; Kris negotiating the family’s annual (sponsored) international island vacation; Kylie being contacted by POM about delivering a heaving supply of pomegranate seeds after she snapped about her “addiction” to them.

This past weekend, Kylie snapped a video of smoke in the sky. There was a fire at a house near to hers, and she wondered aloud if she might have to evacuate. Soon after, Kendall snapped the same smoke from a different angle; she could see the black plume billowing into the Calabasas clouds from the city. Khloe then added her view of the same fire, reminding Kylie that if anyone would need to evacuate, it would be Khloe, because her house was closer. There were no camera crews in their cars or kitchens to capture the fragments of this conversation, but we all shared in it regardless.