Critic's Notebook: Bruce Jenner, Nobody's Punchline Now

Diane Sawyer's interview with Bruce Jenner, in which he confirmed he was transitioning into life as a woman, could have been exploitative — instead, it made for moving and revelatory television.

Sometimes TV can surprise you.

ABC's Bruce Jenner: The Interview could have been a gaudy, exploitative affair, but instead it was reserved, eloquent and educational. After months of speculation, Bruce Jenner confirmed that he is transitioning. "Yes for all intents and purposes, I am a woman, " he told Diane Sawyer.

Sawyer explained that, for now, Jenner wishes to be referred to as "he." The two-hour special was the last interview he will do as Bruce. "His dream is to re-emerge as the person he calls ‘her,'" Sawyer said via voiceover. Jenner declined to tell Sawyer what his name will be and only showed Sawyer "her" off camera. One assumes that Jenner's "re-emergence" will be shown on his just-announced E! docuseries, which premieres July 26.

As Sawyer navigated the tricky, delicate questions, she would at times say things like "help everybody struggling" or "you understand that people are confounded." Given her years as an esteemed journalist, her apparent bafflement was probably a bit disingenuous. But the softball approach worked. It allowed Jenner to tell his story the way he wanted to tell it and Sawyer to ask uncomfortable questions without making it feel as if Jenner were under attack.

In turn, Jenner spoke movingly about his lifelong struggle. His simple and articulate explanations stripped away all the months of voyeuristic speculation and media mockery. After tonight, he can no longer be a punchline. "I'm not stuck in anyone's body. It's who I am," he said. When pressed by Sawyer for details about how he'll look in the future, he said: "I'll re-emerge as myself. How simple is that? Isn't that great?" While it was clear he had given a lot of advance thought to what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it, Jenner never came across as overly rehearsed.

If Jenner were merely a famous athlete from 40 years ago, this would still be a story. But it's become a media circus because he's part of the Kardashian clan. While his four older children (with his first two wives) were interviewed on-camera and appeared lovingly supportive of their father, his two younger daughters, Kendall and Kylie, offered only a written statement of support. His four Kardashian stepchildren, Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob, also did not appear on-camera. As for his ex-wife Kris Jenner, she merely offered a "no comment" when approached by Sawyer (although Jenner tweeted out that she was never approached by ABC).

Since the Kardashians have never met a publicity opportunity they didn't like, their absence was certainly odd. Would E! not allow them to appear, or are they saving their reaction for a very special episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians?

Even though this was billed as a two-hour interview with Jenner, Jenner's story actually was interwoven with interviews with doctors and psychologists. Sawyer was therefore able to educate viewers on the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. She also offered a brief history of transgenderism, presented footage and images of many members of the transgender community, and discussed the suicide and murder rates within the community.

But it is Jenner's bravery in coming out with his story at the age of 65 that will likely inspire others and change minds. "I am not a spokesman for the community," Jenner said, before adding: "I would like to think that we could save some lives here."

It was fascinating to hear Jenner talk about his years on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. "All this time I had the story," he said. There were revelations, like the fact that all three of his ex-wives knew his secret, although he admits he probably wasn't as forthcoming with them as he should have been. Viewers also learned that he took hormones for five years in the 1980s before losing his nerve and stopping treatment. He briefly contemplated suicide. And it was Kanye West who helped Kim Kardashian come to terms with what was happening. "I'm nothing if I can't be me," West apparently explained to Kim.

Sawyer made sure to tread lightly when appropriate. When she did press Jenner about what kind of romantic relationship might be in his future, he said, "Let's go with asexual for now. I'm going to learn a lot in the next year."

At the end of the special, Jenner said that he hoped when people think of him, they will be open-minded. It's hard to imagine being any other way after watching this interview.

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