A few months ago, I found myself on a remote island with no telephone, Internet access, television, or books. The people I was with were on "vacation" but I longed for something to read, so I took to studying a stack of week-old tabloids. Before long, I began hallucinating strange permutations of actors and models. I convinced myself that some of them actually were, as one magazine chirped, "just like us." My skin reeked of perfume samples and I began to believe that I needed to lose a massive amount of weight and boost my energy at the same time. And I grew fascinated with the intertwining fates of then-newlyweds Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, baffled that the curvy reality star would deign to fall for a role player whose contributions were mostly of the "modest" and "workmanlike" variety.
Generally speaking, I don't believe in guilty pleasures. I am of the mind that our relationship to the things we enjoy can be complicated and unlikely, but they should never make us feel ashamed. I'm not sure it would be proper, though, to say that I derive "pleasure" from the array of Kardashian-related shows that have proliferated on my DVR since returning from "vacation." At least a glib pop song is still a song and The Hunger Games still abides by the rules of narrative. Watching the Kardashian spawn on TV, on the other hand, is as dramatic as following a stock ticker in a market where you've invested absolutely nothing.
But there was something strangely hypnotic about it all. Perhaps there was a part of me that wondered what it would be like to live a life so free of actual stress that one had to engineer it by using contracts and publicists. Kardashian and Humphries's lifetime commitment lasted just 72 days, right in time for the premiere of the second season of Kourtney & Kim Take New York, a series that was not so much about "taking" New York as it was spending free time there. By the time the series debuted last November, the end of the NBA lockout was near and Humphries was preparing to sue Kardashian for "fraud," alleging that he had merely been a plot device in his ex-wife's latest reality endeavor.
These were two competing versions of reality. Reality for someone like Humphries is measurable in statistics. At the very least, it is described in known unknowns like "intangibles," "energy," "basketball IQ," or just "arrogance." For Humphries, much of his time as part of Kourtney & Kim was spent sneaking off to the gym in order to keep fit and hone his skills. But reality television is ultimately about watching other people at their idlest, during their downtime — this is what makes it seem real, all those trivial tiffs in front of an open fridge door or hours spent bickering in traffic. For Kim and sister Kourtney Kardashian, work and leisure merged into a haze of photo shoots, in-store appearances, and salads. For Kourtney's boyfriend, the absorbingly superficial, Patrick Bateman-esque Scott Disick, this meant play-acting as a member of the moneyed elite: expressing one's Black Card eccentricity by buying pianos and canes at a whim, dabbling in Judaism, commissioning oil paintings of oneself.
If one were to delude oneself into believing that there was some redeeming, universally understandable takeaway from this series, then perhaps it would have something to do with the stresses of living together as newlyweds, or with one's family, or, in this case, both of these scenarios at once. But this would just be a sort of narrative cover for the more immediate, crass addictiveness of watching strange people act strange on television. There was the time Khloe Kardashian tried to win Kris over by placing a live snake in his bed. There was an episode involving the therapeutic benefits of enemas. Another one revolved around Kris trying to discern whether one of Kim's friends was gay or not. There were the innumerable times Kris referred to a situation as "awkward," though this did not apply to the time when Scott and Kris shaved each other's armpits, or the time Kris returned home from the gym only to "see some naked rasta yoga guy," or the episode when Kourtney began obsessively couponing. At some point, the following observation was made about food: "If it's not chewy, then what's the point?"
I freely admit that there is no point — and yet I kept watching to discern some hidden code of modern culture, as a wager against my better instincts. For those rare moments of self-awareness that seemed radically brave; for those times when Humphries's glance strayed toward the camera, the enemy of thought and intimacy. For those moments when someone chose to say something sensible; for those moments when that person was Scott. The use of logic became something alien and transgressive, a protest against the status quo, as though one of them had thrown herself upon the gears, wheels, and levers of the apparatus and sought to provide a commentary on the conditions that hem in our lives.
I watched for those startling scenes when the camera panned to reveal a bookshelf with an actual book on it. And I kept watching because I found Humphries's participation in the show fascinatingly at odds with the way he plays basketball. I had never thought much about Humphries prior to all of this — the second career as a reality star, the lavish wedding, the agreement to live his life on-camera. But there was something intriguing to me about the amount of exposure he could possibly desire, especially since this was a move that redefined the possibilities of the "bad look." I like to imagine that in their free time, professional athletes perfect their jump shots or scrutinize game tapes. Or maybe I like to imagine them showing up to practice with bloodshot eyes and an unclean conscience, yet summoning the fortitude to keep it together and excel for a couple hours that night. But ultimately, I would prefer not to know. To be a professional athlete is to be superhumanly great at one thing at the cost of nearly everything else. And, as a fan, it's probably best to never find out about everything else, lest the image of two grown men shaving each other's armpits, the camera lingering to document the discarded tufts littering the bathroom marble, interfere with your enjoyment of a Nets-Rockets game.
There are athletes you boo because, deep down inside, you respect their abilities and wish you could root for them. It is a hatred born of envy: You imagine what it would be like to align yourself with the forces of evil that triumph whenever Ben Roethlisberger evades a sack and tosses some improbable touchdown. Maybe you wish you could pound your chest and yell along to the epithets to which Kevin Garnett subjects his poor foes. Perhaps your secret awe compels you to boo Cristiano Ronaldo or Tom Brady simply for their meticulous hair, desperate as you are to find fault.
And then there are players you boo because you don't respect the choices they have made as human beings, which explains why Humphries has gone from an anonymous worker bee to the ex-husband everyone hates. Last month, Forbes published a poll listing the most-hated athletes in America. Michael Vick and Tiger Woods topped the list for obvious reasons, followed by Plaxico Burress and Ndamukong Suh. The fifth-most-hated athlete was Humphries, outranking LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Terrell Owens, Alex Rodriguez, and Kurt Busch.
On the surface, Humphries seems an exceedingly innocuous specimen. Having been the focal point in high school and then college, he played sparingly during his first six years for Utah, Toronto, and then Dallas. But he began to confirm his promise as a first-round pick a couple years ago when he joined the Nets. Last season, he averaged a double-double for the season, playing about 20 minutes a game. He established himself as a solid rebounder and an eager, willing setter of screens who could chip in with a few points if called upon. Somewhere along the way, he began dating Kardashian, and you can imagine him thinking that his life was finally, truly beginning here in his mid-twenties.
At no point when I was a child did I envision a future when television would allow us episodic glimpses into the dullest moments of another person's life, especially someone as willfully dull as Humphries. After the season ended, Humphries complained that the series had been edited in a manipulative, unfair way in order to support Kardashian's side of the story. But watching the series, there was an admirable single-mindedness to Humphries, an authenticity to how blissfully simple his ambitions were whenever he would hit the gym or hang out with his bros. He could have easily bounced out of the league by now or settled into a comfortable plateau as a millionaire role player. Instead, his stint as a Kardashian-by-relation coincided with his emergence as a decent NBA player, or at least one capable of subtly converting self-interest into decent numbers. In other words, the 27-year-old Humphries was the only person in the world of Kourtney & Kim whose life still held some kind of unfulfilled promise.
In one of the series' final scenes, Kim Kardashian begins to mount the case for the divorce everyone knows is coming. "I wanted to be married by 30," she wails, her face a canvas of streaking makeup, "and everything I envisioned my life to be is not really the fairy tale I wanted it to be." However one feels about the motives of those who trade on their own craven, bald aspirationalism, the moment clarified for me why I had become invested in Humphries's fate. At this point in human civilization, the Kardashians have become part of the cultural establishment — they are barely worth lampooning anymore; ignoring them will not make them go away; and they no longer represent some exceptional species of fame. Their reason for being is merely to maintain the inertia of their own brand, which counts as enough these days. They are famous enough to be dissed by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and hate-watched by millions, yet suffer no real consequences and still draw new fans whenever they open a milkshake shop in Dubai. Their position is safe, a manageable, self-perpetuating boilerplate with no true end in sight, until the family can no longer agree on who will be cast as the subsequent season's "terrible one."
The fascinating aspect of Kourtney & Kim Take New York was how the introduction of Humphries brought into relief how fundamentally boring their lives had become. While reality TV suits a caliber of individual for whom self-promotion is enough, the same can't be said for someone still ascending the ranks of professional basketball. The rest of their days would be spent keeping their family name relevant by any means necessary. For Humphries, the future was still wide open. Maybe he would make his own name as a steady presence on a championship team or, as is the case for now, a decent and overscrutinized player on a bad team.
This doesn't make it any easier during those by-myself meetings when I wonder where all the time has gone. In the aftermath of Kourtney & Kim Take New York, I began watching Nets games, out of an idle curiosity about Humphries's fate. Had his game grown flashier or bolder post-Kardashian? How would he react to the inevitable taunts from opposing fans and foes?
Nets games these days rarely make for scintillating viewing. Sometimes it seems like there are more people sitting in uniform on the bench than in the stands, or maybe it's just an arena-wide Liu Bolin performance piece. Usually, it's quiet enough so that you can hear the songs over the PA and then catch them again as they echo. It doesn't help that their one true star, Deron Williams, seems to play with a hateful, spiteful kind of joy, or that their other key asset is Brook Lopez. For his part, Humphries is one of those players who is notable only for being so reliably workmanlike. Some are made to play the villain, and he is not one of them — not yet, at least. He looks like he should be playing volleyball, and at times it feels like he is carefully counting his steps as he cuts to the basket. Nothing he does looks graceful or instinctive.
Still, he's usually good for a nightly double-double. When, in a recent defeat of the Knicks, he responded to New York vitriol by scoring bucket after bucket and then putting his finger to his lips and hushing the crowd, he looked (per his own parlance) awkward. But the hatred seemed to energize him. Perhaps the aftermath of the show has liberated him in more ways than one: He can now play like a true asshole, unencumbered by the league-wide expectations of polite respectability that make nearly everyone in today's cardigan-heavy NBA seem boring and conformist.
While Kardashian-style television has become a routine part of American life circa 2012, it is still strange as a sports fan to be able to experience so much of what happens during a pro athlete's downtime, from Basketball Wives to WAG blogs, Kourtney & Kim Take New York to the far more engrossing Khloe and Lamar. Such exposure has its consequences. A couple weeks ago, Lamar Odom disappeared from the team in order to attend to "family" matters, raising the ire of his Dallas Mavericks teammates. News leaked that his father, whose personal demons were well documented during the first season of Khloe and Lamar, had fallen ill.
Where Humphries's personal travails were resolved by the beginning of the NBA season, the latest season of Odom and the other other Kardashian's love story has overlapped with a precipitous dip in form even though taping presumably ended months ago. There is certainly something more genuine about Khloe and Lamar, a couple who seem uninhibited to the point of exhibitionism. In the season debut, a lagging libido resulted in Kardashian installing a sex swing in their bedroom. Odom was less excited than nostalgic: "I haven't seen this many sex toys since college."
During a recent episode, Odom and Kardashian dealt with the anxious tedium of life during the NBA lockout. Odom weighed an offer to play for a team in Turkey, only for Kardashian to protest on the grounds of her Armenian heritage. At one point, Odom leafed through his closet and came across his Lakers jersey. He buried his face in it, playfully crying about how much he missed the game, telling the shirt how desperately he missed its touch. Of course we know that Odom never got to put that shirt back on; he would get traded to Dallas a couple weeks later, possibly of his own choosing but most likely not. Whether this was a moment of scripted humanity or something heartfelt and spontaneous, it was a welcome reprieve from the awful frenzy of his chosen life — of days spent under multiple forms of surveillance, constantly promoting the brand that is one's name. It was a reminder of how he had distinguished himself from the rest of us in the first place — by maintaining his focus and becoming one of the privileged few who can trade on their skills with a basketball. It returned us all to how unpredictable life can actually be. It felt real.