The E! series begins in a way that feels less like a Kardashian spin-off and more like a Sundance docuseries.

By Melissa Maerz
July 27, 2015 at 04:34 PM EDT
James White/E!
S1 E1
type
  • TV Show
Network
  • E!

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

Being transgender doesn’t prevent Caitlyn from being normal. Being a celebrity does. When Kim Kardashian calls Caitlyn early in the episode, it’s to congratulate her for breaking Obama’s record for Twitter followers. In one scene, Caitlyn says that public support from Lady Gaga and Elton John “really made my kids realize that [being transgender] is okay,” which seems sad if it’s true. They needed Lady Gaga and Elton John to support their parent before they could do it themselves?

I don’t doubt that they love Caitlyn. When Kylie drops by to meet Caitlyn for the first time, it’s a warm moment, filled with smiles and hugs and a cute scene where Esther shares a photo of herself at Kylie’s age—though it’s also slightly uncomfortable when Kylie uses the opportunity to plug her own clip-in hair line, bringing green extensions for Caitlyn. Maybe that’s just how this particular family shows love. But it does make you wonder about Khloe and Kourtney and the other kids whom Caitlyn says haven’t dropped by to meet her yet. Are they hesitant to come over because they’re still grappling with the transition and grieving the father they lost, or because the cameras weren’t there yet?

Also, can we please talk about those cameras? Everything is brightly lit and filmed in soft focus, as if Caitlyn’s whole life is a fashion shoot. More than once, they shift down from a serious point that Caitlyn is making to focus on her expensive-looking manicure. There are glamorous shots of Caitlyn getting her make-up applied by professionals, getting styled by professionals (“Sleeves up or down? What about a necklace?”), getting yet another closet make-over from Kim, who notices that Caitlyn owns the same Tom Ford dress as her ex, Kris. When Kim meets Caitlyn for the first time, with Kanye in tow, she says, “You know, the one thing I’m really shocked about is how skinny you are.”

It’s nice to see Caitlyn feeling pretty, especially after spending so much of her life uncomfortable in her own skin, but all the attention to her face and body sometimes comes at the expense of her message. It recalls something Jon Stewart said earlier this year: “You see, Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen. But now you’re a woman—and your looks are the only thing we care about.” Doesn’t she deserve better than that?

It’s a relief when the attention switches back to Caitlyn’s desire to be an activist. “I feel a tremendous responsibility here, because I have a voice,” she says. And she knows that many others don’t have that advantage. Toward the end of the episode, she visits the parents of Kyler Prescott, a transgender boy who committed suicide in May. The scene allows us to understand how much pressure Caitlyn faces as someone who wants to bring attention to transgender issues without exploiting transgender people. First, Caitlyn weighs the benefits of visiting Kyler’s family, knowing that paparazzi might follow her there. “I don’t want to bring that kind of tabloid attention to Kyler’s family,” she says. Ultimately, though, she decides to visit Kyler’s mother, who explains that Kyler wasn’t bullied at school—it was the adults around him who had trouble accepting his transition. “I don’t think any suicide has a simple cause,” says Kyler’s mom. It’s a good reminder that no one, not even Caitlyn Jenner, can possibly be the spokesperson for transgender people everywhere. Each story is different, and each one is important to tell.

How will I Am Cait tell Caitlyn’s own story? A preview of coming episodes suggests that the tone won’t always be so serious. She’s invited to a slumber party where she’s promised that women have pillow fights and “you compare your boob sizes.” She gets ready to go on her first real date as Caitlyn. But she’ll also listen while transgender people talk about their experiences with violence. This might not be a Sundance docuseries, but it’s far from the fizzy world of your typical reality TV show. For all the green hair extensions and fancy dressing-room tours, it’s still a deeply thoughtful show. So far, I’m hooked. 

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