'Becoming Us': TV Review
Seventeen-year-old Ben navigates adolescence and his dad becoming a woman in this new ABC Family docuseries.
Becoming Us couldn’t premiere at a better time, with Caitlyn Jenner’s debut having propelled the transgender community into the national conversation. ABC Family’s new docuseries introduces viewers to 17-year-old Ben and his family. They’re dealing with issues similar to those of the Kardashian/Jenner clan — except Diane Sawyer doesn’t want to interview Ben’s parent, Carly, and Vanity Fair doesn’t want to put her on its cover.
Ben is a typical teenager living in Evanston, Illinois. He is basically a good kid who struggles in school, sometimes ignores his girlfriend and rolls his eyes at his parents. But, as he tells viewers at the beginning of every episode, “I thought I knew exactly where my life was headed until she came along…her name is Carly and Carly was my dad."
The charismatic Ben is incredibly honest and instantly relatable. If he weren’t the subject of his own reality show, he could definitely be the star of a scripted series. He’s a magnetic screen presence and his ability to keep a sense of humor about all that's going on in his life is delightful.
Carly admits she made many mistakes while married to Ben’s mom, Suzy. “I hurt her. It’s just the facts,” she says. In the premiere, Carly informs her son that she will be completing her transition to becoming a woman by having surgery. “My boy parts are going to become my girl parts,” she says. Ben is devastated. “The person who made me will not have the thing that made me,” he says. The surgery also puts to rest any hope Ben had that things “would go back to normal.”
Like us all, Carly isn't perfect. After Carly tells Ben about the surgery, she’s confused that Ben isn’t returning her texts or calls. She doesn’t want Ben to call her “dad” anymore. While that decision is understandable, it’s also easy to see why it leaves Ben distraught. “If you won’t let me call you dad, I’m not going to call you mom,” Ben says. Becoming Us treats both Ben's and Carly’s perspectives as equally valid without trying to sway the viewer’s opinion one way or another.
The family faces the same issues many divorced families do: Ben’s older half-sister, Sutton, wonders what role Carly should play in her wedding; both parents are upset about Ben’s grades, though Suzy admits she’s the much more lenient parent.
Ben’s girlfriend, Danielle, is an extraordinary support system for him. Her father, who continues to go by Daniel in the show’s early episodes, is also transgender. "I grew up with you being different, and that's made me a better person," she tells Daniel.
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The show spends too much time on Ben’s three best friends, Ayton, Brook and Lathan. Brook repeatedly says Lathan has “been through some stuff.” Perhaps the show will explore that later, but for now, watching Brook try to make sure Lathan and Ayton get along isn’t riveting television; it feels like a time filler while we wait to get back to Ben and Danielle and their families.
Ben repeatedly talks about how much he doesn’t like school. “People are just rude and I don’t want to deal with it,” he says. His current group of friends is much older than he is (Brook is a senior in college), and one wonders if the show simply couldn’t get permission to film at Ben’s high school. Indeed, the school’s absence is jarring; it feels like a missing piece in Ben’s story.
Moreover, some of the scenes have that created-for-television feel. At one point, Ben and Danielle go bra shopping with Carly and Daniel. “I’m going to have to mentally prepare myself for this,” Ben says. (However, the interaction between Carly and Daniel as Carly helps her navigate the lingerie store is great. “I feel prettier now than I did when I came in,” Daniel says.)
At times, the dialogue has a scripted feel. “Who knew my dad would become a woman at the same time I was becoming a man?” Ben says at the end of the first episode. It’s a great sound bite but it's doubtful this is something Ben would just spout extemporaneously.
There are also some busy stylistic flourishes: Every episode title begins with a hashtag, the screen often emulates Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and phone conversations happen via FaceTime. The topic is interesting enough without gussying it up visually — though maybe this is precisely the way to pull in Ben’s contemporaries.
Becoming Us, which is successful both as education and entertainment, vividly demonstrates that although some of Ben’s issues are unique, many are typical. His family could be your family. Ben and Danielle are more mature and sensitive than most. Becoming Us has the potential to help viewers become more like them.