This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
When one reign is over, it’s only right for someone new to ascend the vacant throne.
The final season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians began Thursday, the kick-off to the end of an era and the unmistakable demarcation of a turning point in reality TV.
The Kardashians spent 14 years transforming the genre, pioneering the evolution of authenticity into branding, of social and digital influence into mainstream entertainment, and of how feminism, sexuality, agency, and power is interpreted in the celebrity world. In a genre that is defined by the chaos of life, they lassoed control.
But as their swan-song season unfolds, their impact and legacies are adjudicated, and they plan their next moves, focus can shift to the new class of possible reality-TV royalty. Specifically, Pig Royalty.
Am I trolling by suggesting that the new Discovery+ series about competition pig showing in Texas might be the successor to one in which the only wrangling a family of millionaires in Calabasas has to do is of their glam squads? Of course. But that’s not to distract from the point that Pig Royalty, which premieres March 23 on both the streaming service and the Discovery Channel, is an addictive delight, and certainly a descendant of the kind of television that the Kardashians have wrought.
There are also elements of Toddlers & Tiaras (except, you know, in the context of showing pigs). You’d be hard-pressed not to draw comparisons to Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Best in Show for its clear-eyed lens on a close-knit world that the rest of us might view as utterly absurd (except, you know, these are real people being filmed).
And in the rivalries between the show’s two main competing families, there’s something Shakespearean… and Mean Girls-esque… and, when it comes to three catty sisters with their hair teased up to be closer to Jesus, yes, some definite Kardashian vibes, too.
When I tell you that pig showing is an unfamiliar world, I mean that, for some of us, watching the series might be like being transported to Narnia. But Pig Royalty is self-aware of the ogling curiosity it invites.
Unlike the aforementioned Toddlers & Tiaras, or Duck Dynasty, or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the show never debases itself to class tourism, where its stars become zoological exhibits whose ways of living and talking are offered up for viewers to judge or laugh at. Each subject in Pig Royalty is unapologetic about their chosen passion, wears their pig-showing skill with pride, and is dead serious about the work they devote, really, their entire lives to. More, they know you’ll think it’s strange—and they don’t really care.
“The smell of pig shit is one of a kind,” Jody Rihn, matriarch of the Rihn family and owner of one of the show’s two main teams, narrates in the pilot. “It’s not like cow shit. It’s not like dog shit. It’s got it’s own distinct smell that is awful. I don’t care how many times you wash it, the smell doesn’t go away. But it smells like money to us.”
There is no preparing you for the sight of a swarm of kids barely bigger than the pigs they’re chasing around the muddy competition pen, batting them with little riding whips to steer them past a judge whom they MUST make unsettling, direct eye contact with. There is also no preparing you for how lucrative this—to the outside—bizarre sport is.
There are tens of thousands of dollars at stake in each competition. One of the Rihn girls made $30,000 her senior year of high school from showing pigs, which she put toward college. McKayla Balero, of the rival Balero family, earned $65,000. Suddenly, the high stakes make sense.
There’s a cattiness between the families. The Rihns compare themselves to Walgreens while calling the Baleros Sephora. They mock the Balero sisters—McKayla, McKenzie, and McCall—for their insistence on full-glam makeup and hair for their bouts in the pig pens, nicknaming them “The Blingy Girls.” In response, the Baleros are unbothered. “People thought we were bitches,” one sister says. The other shrugs: “We’re not very nice people.”
Their track record speaks for itself, they argue. As does their diligence. You see, pig showing is arduous work. You shovel shit. You walk your pigs constantly. You train like an athlete. You study the judges and game the system.
Oh yes, there are whispers of “juicing” pig feed to gain advantage. One of the Balero sisters is accused of sleeping with a judge. The families’ respective matriarchs gossip about each other like they’re on Real Housewives… which they essentially are. The Real Housewives of Pig Showing.
But what the show also owes the Kardashians is the strength of the family bond that pulses through the series. These are people who have likely been schooled on decades of reality TV, and they know how to give a good sound bite and drum up drama and scandal. But they also form a heartwarming, uniting front against the pressures of a surprisingly high-octane world. Sooie, bring on the pig drama.