“Becoming Us” gets enough things right that one is inclined to give this ABC Family reality series the benefit of the doubt regarding the times when it feels overproduced, manipulative and like a poor man’s version of “Doogie Howser, M.D.” Told primarily from the perspective of a teenage boy dealing with the fact his father is becoming a woman, this Ryan Seacrest production joins TV’s transgender moment, representing a specific attempt to explore the impact on families. In the process, the show unearths warmth and emotion that’s consistently offset, alas, by genre staples that tend to undermine the “reality.”
Ben, 16, is described as an ordinary Midwestern teenager, other than the fact that his father and mother have divorced (OK, that part’s pretty ordinary), with dad, Carly, announcing plans to become a woman. Ben’s support system includes his girlfriend, Danielle, whose own father is in the midst of the same change. (Exactly how the two kids met goes rather conspicuously unaddressed through the first two episodes.)
It doesn’t take a lot for teenagers to act surly, and Ben is clearly no exception. His grades have suffered, he’s constantly late for things, and he spends a lot of time texting friends or receiving messages from Carly, with the text helpfully popping up on the screen.
Carly provides the show with much of its humanity, offering insight into her transition, and how wrenching that can be. “It’s not a hobby being who I am,” she says.
Invariably, though, the series keeps veering back to familiar tropes, from Ben’s overly massaged narration to all those soft-rock tunes to the quizzical takes during direct-to-camera interviews. And while it might be enlightening, the producers’ hands are obviously pulling strings when, for example, Ben, Danielle and their two dads (which is how the kids refer to them) decide to go bra shopping together.
Beyond his family, Ben spends a fair amount of time in the second hour hanging out with his friends, which, in scripted terms, feels like a rather flat subplot when juxtaposed with scenes of Carly patiently outlining her plans for surgery to her confused son.
“The person that made me will not have the thing that made me,” Ben says, exhibiting a precocious mastery for talking around specifics. “That is weird.”
Coming on the heels of Discovery Life Channel’s “New Girls on the Block” and in advance of Caitlyn Jenner’s much-anticipated E! series, “I Am Cait,” “Becoming Us” does arrive amid a TV and cultural wave tackling the transgender issue, on a network that reaches a young and predominantly female audience with its scripted dramas. Given that, approaching the show through the children – certainly a legitimate aspect of the discussion – feels motivated more by demography than anything else.
While the title, “Becoming Us,” is meant to evoke a family in transition, the series resides at its own kind of crossroads: a serious project that aspires to foster greater understanding of and sensitivity toward the transgender community as well as those close to them, but which – by indulging in some of the bad habits endemic to this form of unscripted fare – itself remains a work in progress.