What’s the “right way” to make a docuseries about Caitlyn Jenner? Maybe there is none. When E! debuted I Am Cait on July 26, the same critics who feared that a show about the world’s most famous transgender woman might be exploitative ended up complaining that the tone was too reverent. Even NPR called it boring! Maybe after decades of watching TV shows that largely limited transgender women to the roles of prostitutes, serial killers, and bullied saints, it’s hard to know what to make of one that features a transgender woman who’s relatively normal and drama-free, considering that she belongs to a family that built its brand with help from the O.J. Simpson trial, a sex tape, and a salacious reality TV show.
I Am Cait is a surprisingly thoughtful series, especially for a Keeping Up With the Kardashians by-product. It begins with Caitlyn awaking at 4:32 a.m., troubled by the violence that plagues transgender people, anxious about the fact that her own show will either help or hurt them. “Am I going to project the right image?” she says. “I hope I get it right.” She acknowledges that she’s an unlikely spokesperson for the community, considering the privileges she’s enjoyed in her life, and although we see her hanging out with Kanye West and fretting about the paparazzi, the show’s best scenes are the most ordinary ones. Watching her spend time with her mother, Esther, and her sisters, Pam and Lisa, is a moving experience. This is an incredibly loving, nonjudgmental family, one that jokes easily with Caitlyn about her newfound need for sports bras but also takes her transition seriously. No one shames Caitlyn for becoming the woman she’s always been inside, even if it’s hard for them to see her changed from the person they once knew. Together, the family meets with a therapist, who answers Esther’s questions about Caitlyn’s transition, likely teaching viewers something in the process. No one corrects Esther when she refers to Caitlyn as “Bruce” or “him.” I Am Cait isn’t a lecture about acceptance—it’s an open discussion, one that makes room for messy emotions on all sides. “It’s a lot of getting used to,” says Esther. “But I will. I will.”
Granted, the show doesn’t always sustain that lofty tone. This is E!, not PBS, and the producers seem to think transgender equality means playing up Caitlyn’s hotness, just as they would with any cisgender woman. The cinematography relies too much on soft focus, robbing the series of a certain gravitas by making it look like a fashion-mag cover shoot. It’s frustrating when Caitlyn is making an important point, only to have the cameras pan away from her face to focus on her manicure. And it’s depressing when Kylie Jenner brings teal hair extensions to her first meeting with Caitlyn, using a poignant moment as an excuse to plug her line of clip-in hair. I Am Cait is still finding the right balance between education and entertainment, but even the vapid attention to her glamorous lifestyle feels important somehow. It’s a good reminder that being transgender isn’t what makes her different from the rest of us. It’s being a celebrity that does. B+