With great visibility comes great power. And with great power comes great responsibility.
That’s the thing that so many have been wringing their hands and patting their brows about as the media’s new LGBT superhero, Caitlyn Jenner, has been afforded more platforms and publicity during her very brave, very public transition.
It’s why there has been ceaseless debate over the wisdom—or tackiness, or nobility, or shamelessness, or irresponsibility, or necessity, all depending on who you ask—of Jenner’s new reality series, I Am Cait, which premieres on E! on Sunday night.
To say that a reality series spotlighting the struggles and triumphs of the woman who has become the most famous, and therefore the most powerful, transgender person in the United States is a big opportunity is an understatement.
So I Am Cait arrives with the attention of an entire community hoping the platform is used to educate and inspire. And it arrives with the attention of a nation of skeptics wondering whether a reality show on the channel the Kardashians built on guilty-pleasure vapidness would squander teaching moments in favor of empty-calorie entertainment.
After all, reality TV, despite its origins as a medium that forced audiences to confront culture and their own ignorance in order to inspire empathy and progress, has become, by and large, garbage. The tension between information and entertainment has snapped as the pull of catfights, drunken debauchery, and sex-sex-sex became too strong.
I Am Cait, however, is reality TV in its highest form.
It’s responsible, but not stuffy in the way that word might suggest. It’s a joyous, emotional, and only occasionally preachy depiction not only of a woman’s coming into her own, but of her acceptance of the influence that’s been bestowed on her merely by her high-profile decision to live as her truest self.
“What a responsibility I have,” Jenner says in the first moments of the series. “Do I project the right image?” And then the weight of all: “I hope I get it right”—a dramatic pause—“I hope I get it right.”
I Am Cait is as moving as you hoped it would be, and as serious and educational as it needs to be—featuring a very controlled message about what it means to be transgender in the year 2015 and what Caitlyn Jenner’s journey does and, more importantly, does not have in common with that reality.
It’s emotional and it’s fun, proving that it was a wise idea after all to employ the same production company behind the far less serious Keeping Up With the Kardashians and to air it on E!, a network that’s never been this dogmatic.
There is immeasurable value in showing Caitlyn Jenner not simply teaching lessons, but enjoying life on a mundane, everyday level. If there’s a singular thing that Jenner and her family—including select members of the Kardashian-Jenner brood who appear on the show—can accomplish, it’s normalizing a community that is so alien for so many people.
These interactions are in sharp, crucial contrast to the extraordinary cultural mission the star is on. They ensure that I Am Cait encompasses a full range of emotions, from laughter to tears. They ensure that it’s human, because that’s who Caitlyn Jenner is.
Moments after Jenner’s panic-stricken opening monologue about the pressure of her responsibility, the series premiere cuts to footage of her team cheering the victory of her Vanity Fair cover release. Those two scenes aired back-to-back perfectly encapsulate the tone of the show: responsibility vs. publicity. Activism vs. fame. Education vs. entertainment.
To many, these may seem like dichotomies or ambitions that are at odds with each other. But I Am Cait proves how, in this era of celebrity culture and near-suffocating influence of the rich and famous, the marriage of these opposing forces may help this series, if it’s a hit, become a landmark entity in the LGBT movement.
The entire premiere undulates between the lighthearted and the sometimes unbearably heavy (not in an off-putting way, but in a very real, imperative way).
Kim Kardashian calls Caitlyn on the day of her Vanity Fair debut. Her first words: “You didn’t tell me you were on Twitter!” The laughs are quickly escorted out by an ominous music cue. “You also have to realize that it’s not this way for everybody,” Jenner says, tempering the celebration.
It’s a shrewd acknowledgment of what many critics have called Jenner’s privilege problem. She’s addressing the reality that not every transgender person can afford the surgeries, the protection, or the support that she’s been afforded. She’s addressing the horrific statistics about suicide, depression, and violence plaguing the transgender community.
To ensure awareness that Jenner’s transgender story is not universal, E! has brought on a trio of well-regarded transgender consultants to make sure that these crucial messages are conveyed in the right way.
Because of all this, sometimes I Am Cait can veer into Afterschool Special territory, but it’s saved by the warmth, authenticity, and gut-busting quick wit and humor of the show’s breakout stars: Caitlyn Jenner’s non-famous family members.
The centerpiece of the show’s premiere is Caitlyn’s debut in front of her sisters, Lisa and Pam, and her mother, Esther, an angel of a woman brimming with love and—perhaps as an unintentional public service—questions about her son’s transition. Her confusion is no match, however, for her desire to accept her child and cherish their evolving relationship.
Esther is the breakout star of the show. If there’s any good in the world, she’s also the person who might be the biggest factor in changing the minds of Americans who tune in unsure of what to think about the transgender community.
“It’s OK,” Caitlyn tells her family when they walk in and see her as her for the first time. “I knew it would be,” Esther says, giving her child a hug. “Gorgeous,” Pam says, through tears. “I thought you were going to look more like me,” she laughs.
Like E!’s special About Bruce episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, it’s not all painted as saintly acceptance. Caitlyn Jenner admits to worrying that her family’s loving response is just for the cameras. And when her family returns to their lives, they sit shell-shocked over what is happening to the Bruce they once knew.
Esther tells Caitlyn, “It’s going to be so difficult to call you ‘she,’ or think of you as Caitlyn.” But it’s her tear-soaked sentiment near the end of the episode that crystallizes the whole point of the show.
She remembers watching her son, Bruce, be crowned an Olympic gold medalist. And she ponders her daughter, Caitlyn. “I am more proud of him for the courage that he has shown,” she says, comparing Caitlyn’s present struggles to her athletic triumphs. “I loved him with all my heart and I certainly love her with all my heart.”
There are many tears, and the premiere takes its time earning them. Perhaps predictably, it’s a tad bloated. There’s a slight, though amusing, appearance from Kim and Kanye West that may be one of the funniest scenes of the summer TV season. In a touching bookend to her role in About Bruce, Kim revisits Caitlyn’s closet now that she’s living life as a woman and re-adjudicates her wardrobe.
And indicating what form the show might take going forward, Jenner visits Katharine Prescott, the mother of Kyler, a transgender teen who recently killed himself.
So much of that sequence is illuminating, from the three cars Jenner must take to escape the paparazzi on her way to the Prescotts’ to the surprising revelation from Mrs. Prescott that her son was embraced by his parents and that his suicide came from bullying, his inner turmoil, and adults’ refusal to accept his transition.
The show ends with a title card featuring the number to the Trevor Project suicide hotline, and a plea for anyone having suicidal thoughts to reach out.
A quick trailer for the remainder of the eight-episode season then plays, showing Jenner navigating how to live publicly as Caitlyn and discuss her transition with the press, while still being respectful to her family. It shows her being educated by other members of the transgender community on their own struggles.
It shows a woman realizing that she’s carrying the weight of a world, of a movement, on her shoulders, and the reality that she may actually have the power to change it for the better.