From the Diane Sawyer interview to the ESPYs award speech, Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender coming out has been a deftly orchestrated public-relations marvel. Still, there was room for skepticism as to whether that would carry over into her new E! show, “I Am Cait,” given the network and Jenner’s association with the Kardashians, who have turned sharing every aspect of their lives into a slick cottage industry. That tension is very much on display in the premiere, which obviously seeks a more elevated plane – keenly aware of Jenner’s platform to educate and assist vulnerable youths – while clinging to familiar reality-TV conventions.
Clearly, the series was produced with artier intentions in mind than what we have come to associate with the Kardashians, who have elevated the “famous for being famous” career path to new and lucrative heights. Much of this difference can be seen in the way “I Am Cait” is shot, including an inordinate number of close-ups on Jenner’s hands.
The episode opens with Jenner in bed, fretting about what the show can accomplish and its potential to do good, citing high murder and suicide rates involving the transgender community. “We don’t want people dying,” she says.
“I Am Cait” then segues to a meeting between Caitlyn and her mother, Esther, and Caitlyn’s two sisters. Jenner’s mom admits that the situation is something of an adjustment for her, but quickly gets to the place that the son she beamed about when he won an Olympic gold medal is no different now, certainly not in the way she feels about her child. “He’s still Bruce,” she says tearfully, getting the pronouns wrong, but the sentiment right.
It is, undoubtedly, the strongest part of the hour, one that goes a long way toward explaining the steady progress the LGBT community has achieved in terms of public sentiment. Even among an older generation, a lot of ingrained prejudices tend to melt away faster when it’s your kid.
The exchange is certainly emotional, despite a slightly awkward interlude in which Jenner invites an expert on transgender issues to answer some of the family’s questions. Another moving moment finds Caitlyn ducking the paparazzi to meet with the family of a transgender youth who had committed suicide, with Jenner discussing her own suicidal thoughts during the direct-to-camera interviews.
Still, if this series is supposed to represent “Caitlyn’s journey,” as E! has consistently described it, that’s mucked up to a degree by bringing her famous daughters and stepdaughters into the mix, including a visit from Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. While Jenner’s interactions with her extended family are clearly part of the narrative, there’s a pandering quality to shoehorning the couple and daughter Kylie into the premiere, as if E! and the producers needed a security blanket to make sure they catered to that audience too.
As the first monologue illustrates, even amid a wave of transgender-related programming, including TLC’s “I Am Jazz” and ABC Family’s “Becoming Us,” Jenner brings the weight of considerable, if oversized, expectations to the project. Just by openly discussing her life, Jenner has already shed light on the issue, lessening the pressure on this series.
For E!, moreover, the show is likely to be a clear winner – not just because of all the praise that has been heaped on Jenner, but practically speaking, as a pillar to hoist up its summer lineup. It’s no accident the program is being used to launch another new series, “Stewarts & Hamiltons,” professing to showcase “true Hollywood royalty” — said royalty being the progeny of singer Rod Stewart and actor George Hamilton, a group nobody should confuse with the British monarchy.
In terms of those sleepless nights, Jenner should really rest easy: just in the drumbeat leading up to “I Am Cait,” she has made a significant contribution to enhancing understanding of the transgender community. Yet given the wider goals she has espoused, the more the series keeps the spotlight trained squarely on its namesake – and away, even at the periphery, from keeping up with the Kardashians – the better.