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Bruce Jenner’s E! TV Series: The Risk to His New Reputation

ABC News’ interview with Bruce Jenner on Friday was a poignant, restrained, socially conscious portrait of a person looking to set an example that could do some good for the world.

In short, it was the polar opposite of everything we could expect from a TV program linked to either a member of the Kardashian Klan or the cable channel that employs them, E!

Which should strike fear into the hearts of anyone hoping that the E! documentary series Jenner is now making will be as responsible as the two-hour Diane Sawyer interview was in its handling of transgender issues.

Yes, it’s an inconvenient moment to express some skepticism as to how Jenner’s story will play out. ABC’s primetime special has ushered in enormous goodwill toward a man who has had his image rehabilitated seemingly overnight, transforming himself from the goofy dad on a tawdry reality show to the face of a civil-rights movement. His intention to “change the world” by sacrificing his privacy for public consumption is admirable and courageous.

But there are so many reasons to consider that the way we saw Jenner on “20/20” may not be how he will be presented in his next production. And counterintuitive as it sounds, when you contemplate what a Kardashian-style Jenner story would be, that may not even be such a bad thing.

Everything we know about E! and the Kardashians heralds the kind of project that could be problematic. This NBC Universal-owned network has long suffused everything on its air with fizz and fluff. In their success with multiple series on E!, the Kardashians have practically redefined the network they’ve called home for eight years in their own tacky image.

But harsh as that is to say about the network and their flagship family, it’s not really an indictment. Not everything on TV has to be of redeeming value.

But considering the Kardashians and E! churn out nothing but cultural pollution, there’s cause for concern that they lack the capacity to step up their game when the material demands it, as is the case with Jenner’s next chapter.

Let’s face it: We’re about to see a show about a man who is trying to be a role model emerge from the same orbit as a family who has succeeded on E! by breeding anti-role models.

In its defense, the network wisely emphasized in its announcement of the series the participation of a range of consultants with expertise in transgender issues. But that’s not really much of an assurance about how dignified E!’s approach will actually be.

Nor is E!’s categorization of the series as a “documentary.” It’s a label chosen to convey gravitas to a series on a channel better known for programming “reality shows,” “docudramas” and other terms that betray the slippery semantics applied to unscripted TV.

Even E!’s choice of production company for the project — Bunim-Murray — feels like something to be second-guessed. E!’s announcement cites the company’s history of treating LGBT issues with appropriate delicacy in unscripted series like “The Real World.”

But it was many years ago that this MTV series seemed so progressive and intelligent, in its first few seasons, for combating prejudice with depictions of diversity — a memory that has been replaced more recently by a dumber, louder version of its former self. For every groundbreaking story Bunim-Murray and MTV so brilliantly told like the one of Pedro Zamora, a gay man with AIDS, in 1994, there’s many more of frat-house antics too forgettable to recount.

So will E!’s Jenner project be more like the “Real World” of yesterday or today?

Perhaps there should be comfort taken in the fact that no Kardashians were actually interviewed on the ABC special, a savvy decision calculated to contain the risk of their celebrity draining the oxygen that Jenner’s story needed to breathe.

Of course, their absence could also be read as a shrewd withholding of what’s compelling enough to sell separately as a sequel of sorts to the ABC special: yet another special focused on telling the reaction to Jenner’s story from the Kardashians, whose lives were impacted by him in a way that’s never been captured by their reality shows.

When the youngest of his six children, Kylie Jenner, tweeted the night of the special, “You will hear what I have to say when I’m ready to but this isn’t about me,” it reads more like a promotional teaser than an expression of selflessness.

The Kardashians are masters of manipulating both social media and tabloid-news outlets to market themselves more effectively than any TV promo could, which portends a rollout of disclosures about Jenner sure to be meted out at carefully timed intervals that will crescendo come time for the summer launch.

ABC’s primetime special is undoubtedly just the opening salvo from what will no doubt be a relentless publicity campaign to promote not just a TV series but the image of a former Olympian who seems to be on the verge of iconhood all over again.

No doubt executives at NBCU are steamed that Jenner’s story was told on a rival conglomerate’s broadcast network rather than one of its own properties. But someone high up the Comcast corporate ladder must be figuring out right now how NBC properties like “Today” or “Dateline” can capitalize on Jennermania with some kind of “exclusive” interview that would exemplify the synergy that warms the cockles of CEO Steve Burke’s heart.

But the Kardashians are also probably looked fondly upon by NBCU, which has come to understand the value of what may currently be the two most important words in the movie business right now: “cinematic universe.” The Kardashians’ ability to turn the lives of their many daughters into multiplatform media and merchandise monsters feels more akin to another franchise also populated by many colorful characters — Marvel’s “Avengers” — than anything else TV has to offer as comparable.

Though Jenner split from his wife last year, he seems still enmeshed enough in the Kardashians’ lives to suggest that this production is essentially a product of the family empire. It’s hard not to think of Jenner as just a brand extension of Kardashian Inc. — perhaps a distinctly more upmarket product than the trashier stuff they’ve already sold us, but still a product.

And therein lies some cause for optimism. Perhaps all the attention the Jenner series will undoubtedly get, and the halo that will shine on the Kardashians as a result, will redefine our understanding of this family, who could position themselves in a way that even garners them some — gasp — respect. Stranger public-image shifts have happened.

Or perhaps pessimism is warranted. Contrary to the initial indications that Jenner’s series will be a step up from the E! and Kardashian brands, consider what would occur if the consultants and production company E! has hired end up mere window dressing to a series that emerges from the very same mold that made “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

It’s one thing to serve up, as ABC News did, a few hours of uplifting, educational TV. But it’s quite another to stick to that tone over 10 one-hour episodes without indulging in the kind of bottom-feeding excesses that unscripted TV demands.

Truth be told, it’s probably oversimplifying the matter to look at E!’s Jenner production in the stark either-or terms of Good or Bad. The series will likely be some mix of high road and low road: If it’s too saintly, it won’t be popular entertainment. But make some questionable creative decisions that draw the ire of the transgender community, and you have the kind of controversy that ignites the endless media coverage that translates to free promotion for the series.

But maybe just a little tabloid flavor is OK. Because what may be the biggest risk of all here is that E! tries too hard to make the project worthy of being called a documentary, and the result is tasteful to a fault — too restrained and respectful to its subject to really resonate the way the savviest of unscripted franchises can convey warts-and-all authenticity (or at least fake that convincingly).

Even the most ardent of transgender advocates has to recognize that the portrayal that they themselves would appreciate most isn’t necessarily the kind that would have a broader impact on the public at large. Just a spoonful of Kardashian-formulated sugar could help the medicine that is transgender politics go down.

Make no mistake about it, Jenner’s E! production has the potential to be a truly hit series, and that’s “hit” in the old-fashioned sense of the word as it was used before cable and streaming hopelessly fragmented the TV audience.

If the 17 million people who tuned in to “20/20” on Friday was any indication, this should be the most prominent mainstream example of a transgender cultural figure in a way only mass entertainment has the power to deliver, and to an audience even bigger than more refined fare with transgender characters like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” have already begun doing.

It just feels Jenner is poised to transcend being a mere TV star to something much grander. Even the way Jenner injected himself into the realm of politics during his special by declaring his Republican affiliation and calling out its most prominent leaders by name seems to hold out the possibility that he could even end up a symbol of the 2016 presidential race.

Just wait until one of the politicians Jenner referenced is asked about him and then he is repudiated as some kind of demonstration of conservative family values. It’s a firestorm just waiting to make endless headlines.

Jenner’s story is not going to work as a series if the figure at the center isn’t first and foremost a compelling individual. The Kardashians have, for better or worse, calculated that “compelling” requires putting bad behavior on camera. Jenner may understand he’ll need to play by those rules a little bit to get the most attention.

And maybe cheapening his story is worth it. Perhaps Jenner will seek to construct the kind of narrative that will play to the broadest audience, even if it’s a tad trashy. That would be a small price to pay considering his lofty goal: sensitizing the world to the transgendered among us who have suffered greatly from prejudice and ignorance.

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