'I Am Cait': Worthwhile intentions shadowed by fame

The world met Caitlyn Jenner as a glamour girl, posed in pinup style, shot by the most famous of celebrity photographers, and displayed across the cover of Vanity Fair.

Earlier this month, we saw her on a pedestal, accepting an ESPY, clad in a gorgeous Versace Atelier gown. She shares a stylist with Angelina Jolie.

Now the television world will get intimate with Caitlyn as she sits in bed at 4:32 in the morning and freaks out.

Gone is the corseted bathing suit, the soft lighting, and the professional makeup of the magazine cover. Apparent are the crow's-feet around her 65-year-old eyes, the veins on her hands. Instead of the beauty queen, here is a woman nervous about seeing her mother.

It's a lovely moment of genuine intimacy not often captured on reality TV.

I Am Cait - the first of eight episodes premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on E! - is supposed to feature the real Caitlyn. As a TV vehicle, it's a way for her to wrestle her story away from the tabloids that outed her before she was ready - even from her own family, who must contend with their own constantly scrutinized, and constantly filmed, public personas.

Throughout, Caitlyn is fantastically candid. She's warm and sweet and comfortable with herself. When it comes to accepting her authentic self, she's not afraid to show her own learning curves. In signing a birthday card for her mom, she hesitates before writing, "Love, Caitlyn."

I Am Cait aims to be higher-minded than the Keeping Up with the Kardashians empire (which recently added a talk show for Khloé called Kocktails with Khloé), focusing on advocacy and opening up frank discussions on transition and transgenderism. In many ways, it achieves these aspirations, especially early in the first episode shown to critics.

But it's still a reality show, holding tightly to the tenets of the genre. There are heavy-handed musical cues, strategically placed commercial breaks, and obviously planned action and situations to create conversation and drama. Critics have been shown just one episode, but previews for coming entries featured familial strife, the prospect of a date with trans actress Candis Cayne, and trans people talking to Caitlyn about their lives.

E! may be calling this a docu-series, but Caitlyn learned well at the side of reality svengali and ex-wife Kris Jenner.

Staging is usually not much of an issue in reality shows. We've come to expect as much. But it makes for an awkward transition when advocacy is meant to be at the heart of I Am Cait.

Over and over, Caitlyn concedes that her life does not reflect the trans experience on the whole. She sees her fame as a platform: "We don't want people dying over this. What a responsibility I have. . . . I hope I get it right."

It's noble, and frankly great, that Caitlyn wants to shed light on the suicide rates among trans kids, but in the context of I Am Cait, this desire to do good feels shoehorned in. Even if she wants to be a voice for a marginalized group, and there's nothing to say she does not, it still feels like a producer is pulling the strings, even with the best intentions.

And while these are wonderful intentions, they are overshadowed by the Kardashian fame machine. Caitlyn would not be in her position without her Kardashian association, but the family casts a pall over I Am Cait.

She acknowledges her fame frequently (in one scene, she must hide from paparazzi), and how it separates her from others in the trans community. She gets public support; she has a voice and a platform. And fame also affects how her family encounters her transition.

The first time Kylie, the 17-year-old daughter, "meets Caitlyn" - who uses that third-person construction often for herself - is in front of cameras. Her ex-stepchildren Khloé, Kourtney, and Rob have yet to meet Caitlyn, who frets about what they think. Kylie has lived in front of a camera since she was a little kid, and her reaction belies any honest emotion. Kylie is shown as having more interest in putting green extensions in Caitlyn's hair - a signature Kylie look - than feeling anything in front of prying eyes.

Granted, Kylie is tackling this difficult experience - seeing her parent as a woman for the first time - as cameras roll. Awkward compounds awkward. But it is also her choice to meet her this way. Kylie has been invited before, Caitlyn candidly says. But she did not come until the cameras were on.

On a tour of Caitlyn's closet, Kardashian grand princess Kim hilariously mentions that Kris and Caitlyn both have the same dress. "Who wore it better?" Caitlyn asks excitedly, her first thoughts going to the tabloid staple. "I have to make sure I wear it first."

This is a family whose foundation is its image. Caitlyn is not normal, not because she is trans, but because she is famous. This not going to be a show about the normal life of a family with a trans member; TLC's I Am Jazz, about trans teen and YouTube star Jazz Jennings, does a much better job of that. In a way, I Am Cait is really about fame.

But back to the bedroom, where Caitlyn sits nervously waiting for her mother and two sisters to arrive. She is about to introduce Caitlyn to her mother for the first time.

It's smart to focus on this less-famous family first. It makes I Am Cait seem less like the publicity grab detractors accused it of being, and more of what producers Bunim/Murray are going for: a way to talk about being transgender from both inside and out.

(Bunim/Murray is particularly LGBT-friendly: They also chose activist Pedro Zamora, one of the first openly gay men with AIDS to be featured on TV, for the cast of The Real World: San Francisco in 1993.)

Caitlyn's mother, Esther, struggles with her daughter's decision. But neither one is judged. This is going to be hard, Caitlyn tells her, and it's OK to talk about these things.

Esther, who speaks glowingly about Caitlyn despite her reservations, acts as a chorus or an audience conduit in a lot of ways. She is able to ask blunt questions and be skeptical. When Caitlyn brings in Susan Landon of the Los Angeles Gender Center, Esther asks how she can reconcile her daughter's transition with a passage from Deuteronomy forbidding a man to wear women's clothes.

"To me, Caitlyn is a woman," Landon says, "and always has been."

Esther does not seem sure that's true, but that's entirely OK. What's important is that I Am Cait lets her ask the question - and it lets us, and her family, watch as all involved work through their responses.


TV REVIEW

I Am Cait

 

Premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on E!


meichel@phillynews.com

215-854-5909 @mollyeichel