Caitlyn Jenner is a reality TV star. That much is supposed to be obvious. She may have introduced herself as a transgender woman during a brave ABC interview with Diane Sawyer and a glamorous Vanity Fair cover that followed, but the world really got to know the former Olympic gold-medalist on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, back when she was still known as Bruce. Now, it’s strange to think of her as a “reality” star. Even she admits that Keeping Up With the Kardashians was never the truth. As Caitlyn told Sawyer, “The one real story in the family was the one I was hiding.”
From the very first scene in the new E! series I Am Cait, it’s clear that Caitlyn wants to tell her own story and make it as real as possible. The premiere begins at 4:32 am, as Caitlyn lies awake in bed. She can’t stop thinking about transgender youth committing suicide or being murdered. She knows she’s taking on an enormous responsibility. As the most famous transgender woman in the world, she’s the de facto spokesperson for transgender people everywhere, and she knows that whatever she does in this show will either help or hurt them. “Am I going to project the right image?” she wonders. “I hope I get it right. I just hope I get it right.”
The tone is sobering. The emotions are genuine. At first glance, I Am Cait feels less like a Kardashians spin-off than a Sundance docuseries that comes with a certain gravitas. But there’s a tension to the way this scene is presented that reminds you it couldn’t have aired anywhere but the E! channel. It’s the middle of the night, and yet Caitlyn’s hair is almost perfectly styled, with minimal bedhead. Her skin looks dewy, as if fresh moisturizer has just been applied. Make no mistake: This is an inspirational, educational, important series, and watching it is a moving experience. But it’s also a show about living your truth, and that’s a little strange, considering that, like all reality TV shows, parts of it feel staged.
The most honest parts of I Am Cait come when Caitlyn gets to hang out with her mother, Esther, and sisters, Lisa and Pam. She seems to be the most at ease around them, even joking about needing a sports bra during a tennis match with Pam, and it’s heartening to see how loving and nonjudgmental they are with one another. Caitlyn doesn’t flinch when Esther calls her “Bruce” and insists upon using the pronoun “he.” When Caitlyn tells Pam that it’s harder to come out as transgender to her straight male friends because “girls are so much easier” to talk to, Pam replies, “Yes, we are,” and there’s something so welcoming about that “we,” a pronoun that obviously now includes Caitlyn herself.
As for Esther, she might be the true star of the premiere. She’s still struggling to accept “Bruce” as Caitlyn, but she’s trying as hard as she can, and you can see how much she loves all of her children. She takes some time to speak with a therapist, asking how she can reconcile Caitlyn’s transition with her own belief in the Bible, and trying to wrap her head around the idea that Caitlyn was always female, even when she was 3 years old. She asks the same questions that might be on many viewers’ minds. “It’s a lot of getting used to,” says Esther. “But I will. I will.” Watching her try, it’s hard not to get choked up.
Transgender women often talk about the struggle to be perceived as “normal,” but watching Caitlyn with Esther, Lisa, and Pam just reminds you how normal she is. She shares the same easy banter, the same inside jokes, the same tensions that you might share with your own family. When Esther tells Caitlyn that she resembles a Jenner relative she can’t quite place, and Caitlyn replies, “I think I look like myself, mom,” she’s feeling what many women, transgender or not, feel about their mothers: She’s proud to be part of her family, but she also wants to be perceived as an independent person, not someone else’s child.
NEXT: A couple Kardashian kids meet Caitlyn