Those looking for a waist-deep wallow into the further reaches of the Kardashian swamp with Sunday night’s premiere of “I Am Cait” would be disappointed by what aired instead: a clean, clear, and often compelling slice of TV, documenting the day-to-day unreal reality of Caitlyn Jenner, fresh from her public debut as herself.
Over the years, the grand arc of reality TV has described a changing relationship with celebrity: Initially it gave regular people (those willing to live on an island or sing onstage) a chance to step into the spotlight’s momentary glare. But the dramatic torque of reality TV now comes from watching people desperate to hang on to the spotlight. (Hello, “Real Housewives” and Kardashians.)
“I Am Cait” puts this dynamic in a fresh predicament: Now that Jenner — a transgender woman whose struggle is undiminished, but certainly distinguished, by her Olympian profile and enduring celebrity — once again has the spotlight, what should she do with it?
It’s a moral weight that swings beneath the surface of “I Am Cait” — and the result is something other than the typical reality-show vacuum of consequence. It’s a concern, if we are to trust the opening sequence, that keeps her up at night.
Rather than devolve into the 60-minute shopping montage it so easily could on a network like E!, Sunday’s premiere used a refresher course on Caitlyn’s saga — from her April interview with Diane Sawyer to the July launch of the Vanity Fair cover — as a frame for another story, one that puts Jenner’s journey on the level with thousands of transgender individuals: coming out to the family.
As Jenner’s new life cracks open (“I’ve been on Twitter an hour,” she says at one point), so do those of her siblings, mother, and children. We see her family climbing the steep hills to her house in an SUV, each still stuck in a first gear of obsolete male pronouns. We see Caitlyn approach the quandary of how to sign her birthday card to her mother.
And we see her mother: “He’s still Bruce to me,” she tells the camera through tears, closed eyes, and clenched teeth, her words still finding themselves, her smile gently collapsing. Later, in a living room therapy session with Susan Landon, we hear Jenner’s mother recall a young Bruce pulling off the clothes she was pulling onto him. “I Am Cait” keeps its heartbreaks at an accessible scale — such that they may feel too familiar to too many.
And despite no slack in the expected glam factor, the grim facts of the difficulties facing transgender people are kept firmly foregrounded throughout. (This episode culminates with a visit to the family of transgender teen Kyler Prescott, who committed suicide at 14.) It’s a side of the transgender experience that few of us, Jenner included, have witnessed before; and it’s moving to watch Jenner let her story figure out how best to tell itself.