Two nights ago, in a secret location somewhere in Los Angeles, someone we will call “Jim” won an award. A very prestigious award, voted on by some of the best-known figures in show business, and it was earned for work known and loved by millions worldwide. And yet his name, and his connection to that award-winning work, can never be revealed, for the name of that award was “Best Writer on a Reality Show”, and the name of the show was Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
The reality show, of course, is older than TV, but took a while finding its niche in the new medium. The first golden age of reality TV debuted in 1960 with American Camelot and its poignant sequel Death of a President. These were followed by the controversial war series Vietnam and inspirational I Have A Dream, and culminated in the mid-70s with Watergate, which kept viewers glued to their screens with its sweeping saga of corruption in the Oval Office, breaking all ratings records. But the momentum couldn’t last. In the 1980s Watergate sequel Contragate failed to seize the popular imagination, and the reality crown fell to the European geopolitical thrillers Fall of the Wall and Boris and Mikhail. By the early 90s (with the notable exception of Desert Storm, the first in the Blood For Oil trilogy) the genre had descended into farce, with such dismal efforts as Bobbitt and Buttafuoco.
American dominance, however, was re-asserted with the top-rated 1994-95 miniseries OJ, which reinvented Shakespeare’s Othello as a courtroom drama with a twist ending. As one of many young writers on OJ, Jim developed, among others, the character of attorney Robert Kardashian, the original inspiration for Keeping Up. “I had originally pictured him as Greek, a slightly comical character, but at the audition (actor’s name withheld) really stood out. He just worked better as an Armenian.” Even then, Jim had the idea of developing a spinoff featuring the character as the bewildered father of a trio of modern daughters, but couldn’t arrange the backing.
Jim worked on many popular series after OJ, including the soft-core political porn Slick Willy’s Intern-al Affairs and the tragic, grotesque King of Pop. For Survivor, he created Richard Hatch, the first great villain of the new wave of modern reality TV; more controversially, he also claims to have originated the iconic datemark which gave its name to the 2001 disaster epic 9/11. “Every time someone called Emergency Services, I wanted them to think about the show.” I pointed out that at least one other, also unnamed, writer has made the same claim (although her rationale was that the number 11 evoked the “destroyed” buildings). “There were a lot of ideas floating around that one. We wanted something that would really stick in the mind, and in the end I guess it was a group effort.”
Ironically, Robert Kardashian himself didn’t make it into the current series—the producers thought the audience would find him too Arab-looking. So according to the Keeping Up back story, Robert has died and his wife remarried (to an Olympic swimming star), and the show focuses on the whacky antics of his three older daughters as they drink, curse and whore their way through modern American high society. The formula, however, is as old as Leave It To Beaver: each episode features some kind of personal problem or conflict which is solved by the end through mutual respect and family loyalty. “Although it may look as if the show is ad-libbed,” says Jim, “it is in fact tightly scripted, with intensive rehearsals. The actresses playing the daughters are in their 20s and 30s, which makes their spot-on portrayal of slightly retarded 12-year-olds all the more remarkable.”
One hazard of this kind of show in the Internet age is the spoiler. The lavish “wedding” of lead character Kim had barely aired when showbiz media revealed that she was heading for divorce. When I asked Jim why he gave the groom the same name as the bride’s mother, he laughed. “Freudian psychology? No, the whole thing is so absurd that one more absurdity is hardly noticed.”
Although Jim’s contribution to TV history must remain forever hidden, he doesn’t seem to mind a bit. “Do you know my production company gets letters every day addressed to Kim Kardashian, or Donald Trump, or Michele Bachmann? There are people out there who actually think these outrageous characters I created are real! That’s reward enough for me.” /glen