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The more appropriate stylistic precursor to Caitlyn Jenner‘s much ballyhooed new reality series is not Keeping Up With the Kardashians, in which Bruce was often used for comic relief, but rather her sensitive in-depth interview with Diane Sawyer that became a media sensation. Clearly striving to impart serious messages about tolerance of the transgender community while throwing in a few Kardashians for comic relief, I Am Cait emerges as a surprisingly thoughtful if undeniably self-serving effort.
“The Reveal,” the first installment of the eight-episode series, begins with a sleepless Caitlyn worrying about an impending visit with her family in which her mother, Esther, will encounter her as a woman for the first time. She’s also agonizing about her new role as the de facto spokeswoman for transgender people.
“What a responsibility I have,” she frets. “We don’t want people dying over this. I hope I get it right.”
The tone soon lightens when Caitlyn receives a phone call the next day from Kim Kardashian, who informs her that she’s already attracted hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers in just a few hours.
“Let’s go for the record!” Caitlyn enthuses before ironically adding: “I love records!”
The reunion with her mother and her sisters Pam and Lisa is presented for maximum emotional effect, with the elderly woman commenting about her child, “I think he’s a very good-looking woman.” An expert on transgender issues is on hand to untangle some of the potential pitfalls.
“Pronouns are really important, everybody,” she reminds them.
Structured in typical reality TV fashion, with suspenseful moments just before commercial breaks, the show cannily keeps shifting tones. A segment in which Jenner’s daughter Kylie shows up and proceeds to color Caitlyn’s hair bright green (“Isn’t this more fun than talking about sports?” Caitlyn teases) is followed by a heartfelt one-on-one conversation between Caitlyn and her mother, whose quiet dignity makes up for years of Kardashian nonsense.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy,” she tearfully says about dealing with her child’s dramatic transformation.
Then it’s back to the lighthearted stuff with such scenes as the arrival of Kim and her husband, Kanye West — the latter, looking more than a little uncomfortable, relegated to the role of mere background figure — and Kim helping Caitlyn rifle through her newly voluminous clothing closet.
“This has got to go,” declares Kim while holding up a particularly offensive blouse to the camera.
The show builds up to an especially poignant segment in which Caitlyn, after going to elaborate lengths to ditch pursuing paparazzi, meets with the family of Kyler Prescott, a San Diego transgender teen who had recently committed suicide. The scene — in which Caitlyn mostly listens quietly as Kyler’s mother talks about her late son — effectively underscores the series’ stated message.
It remains to be seen whether I Am Cait will be able to continue its delicate balancing act of depicting the many challenges attendant to Jenner’s new identity while presenting the sensationalistic comic material that reality viewers crave. But initially, at least, it’s an impressively nuanced effort that may well succeed in changing hearts and minds.
I Am Cait premieres Sunday, July 26, at 9 p.m. on E!.
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