It’s hard to tell if the timing is perfect or terrible. Just one week after Caitlyn Jenner made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair, ABC Family is premiering Becoming Us, a reality series about a family with a transgender parent. Now, you could say that it isn’t the first reality series about that subject, because shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and New Girls on the Block already exist, but that doesn’t make Becoming Us any less groundbreaking. The most revolutionary thing about it might be how ordinary it is.
Chances are, you’ve seen families like the Lewalds on television before. The son, 16-year-old Ben Lewald, goes to high school in Evanston, Illinois, where his friends include a goth kid who looks like a character from Twilight. Like many juniors in high school, Ben struggles with his grades, overuses Twitter hashtags, and rolls his eyes at anyone who gets on his case. His girlfriend, Danielle, complains that he doesn’t text her back quickly enough. His sister, Sutton, worries about him when he gets too sullen. And his parents are splitting up.
Here’s where Ben’s story differs from your average American teenager: He’s being raised by a transgender woman named Carly. And Danielle’s parent, Sallydan, happens to be transitioning into a woman, too.
Is that twist a little too neat? Maybe. There are times when Becoming Us feels too scripted, especially when it gets into voice-over mode. “Who knew my dad would become a woman at the same time that I was becoming a man?” says Ben, sounding more like a middle-aged TV writer than a real teenage boy. When Danielle suggests that Carly take Sallydan bra shopping, it’s hard to understand why the kids decide to tag along, if not for the camera’s sake. Judging by Ben’s please-kill-me-now reaction to Sallydan trying on a sexy corset, this wasn’t his idea. Who would ever want to see his girlfriend’s parent trying on lingerie, whether that parent is trans or not?
Even when the episodes rely on constructed scenarios, though, the emotions feel real. It’s clear that Ben’s mother, Suzy, still loves Carly, even though they’re divorcing, which makes their conversations a little heartbreaking. When Carly shows up with a sleek new hairdo, Suzy jokes that this is just another betrayal. “You even stole my hairdresser,” she deadpans. “Damn you.” And the kids’ reactions to dealing with these brave new parents feel authentic, too. Just try not to get choked up when Danielle cries about the fact that Sallydan can’t walk down the street without getting harassed. “It’s my dad and he’s a person,” she says of Sallydan, who still prefers male pronouns. “You’re making him feel bad.”
One of the most wrenching things about Becoming Us is how quickly the kids are forced to grow up. Danielle even complains that Sallydan is like a “pre-teen,” wearing too much makeup. And a suddenly mature-sounding Ben has to explain to Carly that it will take time to mourn the parent he grew up with—the one he’ll technically lose when she transitions medically. “The person that made me will not have the thing that made me,” says Ben. “That is weird.” It’s profound and just a little silly at the same time.
You might say the same thing about this show. There are times when Becoming Us overdramatizes moments that should have been inherently dramatic in a natural way. Tonally, it can feel a little too close to an after-school special, as when Ben literally screams from a rooftop to vent his frustration. But each episode also allows space for the kids’ messy feelings without ever suggesting that their parents’ paths aren’t right. This is a hugely compassionate series about a family that’s just a little different, and yet, not that different at all. Because of that, it’s not just a gripping story. It’s an important one for all families to watch.