The three months since Caitlyn Jenner’s Diane Sawyer interview have seen an outpouring of transgender coverage and programming, including ABC Family’s “Becoming Us,” Frontline’s “Growing Up Trans” and Discovery Life’s “New Girls on the Block.” With Jenner’s E! show arriving this month, TLC joins the band with “I Am Jazz,” a sensitively constructed series (in an admirable departure for the attention-seeking network) built around 14-year-old author/activist/soon-to-be-high-school-student Jazz Jennings and her family. Simply told and heartfelt, the show should add a welcome dimension to the education process, capturing the challenges associated with sexual identity at such a vulnerable age.
Beyond Jazz, the Jennings brood includes her older twin brothers and a sister who is just starting college. Grandma and grandpa are also a regular presence, being supportive of their granddaughter while occasionally struggling to get their terminology and pronouns right.
The heart of the show, however, comes from Jazz and her mom, Jeanette, who is proud of her daughter and understandably protective of her. When the two are having lunch, and a teenage boy walks by referring to Jazz under his breath as a “tranny freak,” Jeanette nearly jumps out of chair, with Jazz having to calm her down.
There’s also a nice interplay, as presented, between Jeanette and her husband, Greg, who are both quite articulate in discussing their experience as parents. “There’s a lot of things we’ve confronted that we had no road map for,” Greg says.
Perhaps foremost, the series largely eschews the sort of staged encounters often associated with such fare, easing into situations like a bowling excursion with the girls where Jazz worries about the decision to invite boys along, since, as Jeanette has witnessed, boys aren’t nice to her. The one significant exercise in sleight of hand, really, is in burying the lead in journalistic terms, making Jazz out to be an ordinary girl when she has achieved considerable celebrity via YouTube, a children’s book and an OWN documentary, all making her a spokesperson for transgender youth. An interlude in which she hosts a book signing, notably, waits until the fifth episode.
Yet despite that omission and the inherent unreality of having camera crews invade a family home, “I Am Jazz” manages to convey universal feelings, from Jazz’s apprehension about high school (“I’m very self-conscious,” she says) to Jeanette saying that for all the unanticipated issues raised by having a transgender child, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to make you happy.”
At the book signing, an older transgender boy says what a difference it would have made to see a book like “I Am Jazz” while growing up. In those moments, even allowing for the massaged and manipulative aspects of the genre, this feels like a series that will do some good. And while TLC has frequently sought to make noise by chronicling the excesses of human behavior – from cartoonish hillbillies to polygamists, from pageant moms to absurdly prolific families – with “Jazz,” at least, the network has struck the right notes.