In one of those meta moments, a later episode of “I Am Cait” featured Caitlyn Jenner picking up the Los Angeles Times and reading the enthusiastic review of the show’s premiere. While Jenner has done pretty much everything right from a public-relations standpoint since her Diane Sawyer interview in April, the former Olympian couldn’t completely clear the hurdle of producing a show for E! In essence, “Cait” represented a tale of two shows, a good one in which Jenner hung out with other transgender people and became an advocate, and a secondary aspect devoted to keeping up with the Kardashians.
Both personalities were clearly on display in the season finale (and SPOILER ALERT, to the extent such warnings apply, if you haven’t watched), which opened with Caitlyn’s dramatically teased meeting with ex-wife Kris, who expressed a sense of hurt over comments Caitlyn made in a Vanity Fair profile. Tears sort of flowed, but Kris kept the stage-managed encounter interesting primarily by colorfully mangling the language, saying “I just felt thrown under the bridge” (at least it wasn’t a bus) and that the article “literally killed me.”
Obviously, coming out to one’s family is a major part of the transgender experience, especially for someone doing so later in life, with children to consider. In addition, embracing the Kardashian connection had a pragmatic component — offering a way to potentially assist in bringing “Cait” to the attention of viewers who might not have otherwise come to the show.
Yet the Kardashians’ carefully sculpted image (it’s hard to imagine them surviving without US Weekly, and vice versa) gave a scripted, inauthentic feeling to virtually all those encounters, as most of the gang – Kim and Kanye West, Khloe, Kylie Jenner – made pilgrimages to meet with Caitlyn over the course of the show’s eight-week run. If that was inevitable – and a comforting crutch for E!, providing a connection to its long-running franchise – in this case, blood was thinner than water.
Moreover, those sequences consistently paled next to virtually everything else in the show and much of its seemingly genuine emotion, including Jenner’s scenes with her mother and sisters.
Indeed, Jenner accomplished so much over the course of the series that the Kardashian clan increasingly felt like a distraction. Those separate undertakings included assembling a support system of transgender women, a budding friendship with actress Candis Cayne and efforts to educate herself by meeting with transgender youths or hearing from adults who lacked Jenner’s celebrity and financial resources.
In the finale, for example, Jenner and her new gang engaged in a rather intense discussion about faith, and whether being transgender could be resolved with Christianity. The episode concluded with a naming ceremony, which, among other things, provided an excuse to flash back through the entire season.
Most reality shows, obviously, seek to conjure drama, and despite all the good Jenner sought to do “I Am Cait” clearly didn’t want to risk being viewed as an eight-hour public-service announcement. That said, there were plenty of opportunities for that without consistently playing the Kardashian card, including the way the producers built tension around Jenner receiving the Courage Award at the ESPYs. (As an aside, the practice of trying to be arty by cutting away to Jenner’s hands should be retired permanently.)
“I Am Cait” closed as it opened, with Jenner speaking directly into a small camera, confessing hopes and fears. “I want to help people,” she said, and in terms of altering the conversation and perceptions regarding the transgender community, she clearly has. It’s only too bad that the series bearing her name, even with its strengths, struggled to find its identity.