No matter how you feel about the Kardashians or their place in the celebrity firmament, the strangest thing about them is that their flagship show, Keeping up with the Kardashians, is really boring. The program is the thing that catapultedKim Kardashian from sex tape notoriety to global phenomenon and selfie-taking mega-brand, but it’s always dull and full of overly controlled situations that never really show the truth. Keeping up with the Kardashians is always trying to squeeze drama out of real life and usually fails miserably. And when there is actual drama (Kim, Khloe, and now Kourtney’s divorces) it’s usually elided.
I Am Cait, the new reality show about the family’s former patriarch, Caitlyn Jenner, is exactly the opposite. It’s trying to squeeze real life out of an incredibly dramatic situation. Jenner, the Olympian formerly known as Bruce, is transitioning to live as a woman and dealing with accepting herself as her family, friends, and hair and makeup crew are working to accept her as well. It is a truly one-of-a-kind existence that she’s living, and it makes for a far better program than Keeping up with the Kardashians ever did.
The premiere of the eight-episode series, which airs on E! Sunday 26 July at 8pm EST, doesn’t have much to it. In the sunny tones of every reality show ever filmed in Los Angeles, we see Jenner’s mother and two sisters come to see Caitlyn for the first time. Caitlyn also has an audience with her daughter Kylie, who has never met her before but doesn’t miss a chance to fill her parent’s hair with extensions from her new line of hair accessories. The apples and trees in this family are always falling together and finding a way to make money on the journey.
Kylie doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with the new situation, but Jenner’s mother, Esther, is openly struggling with understanding. “I need to know more,” she says multiple times, and Jenner brings in a social worker who specializes in gender reassignment to answer the family’s questions. Esther is having a hard time letting go of the past and says: “He’s still Bruce. I love him so much.” It’s the love that wins out and by the end of the episode, as these things always do in reality television; she’s come around to a place of acceptance.
Well, not really acceptance. She still acknowledges that it’s going to be a process and one that she will find difficult, and that is an extreme amount of realism for reality television, especially a project involving this family that has mastered the fine art of the façade better than anyone in modern media. Caitlyn talks about how all of her children and stepchildren say how happy they are for her new life, but most of them haven’t been by to visit or meet Caitlyn. She still struggles with her transition, and as much as she enjoys exploring her newly expressed femininity and moving in her new body, it’s obvious to observers that she needs to get used to it a bit herself. It’s these flashes of revelation – quite profound for a show that aims to be as close to frothy as you can be while discussing the complications of gender expression – that make this one of the finer reality shows to come along in some time.
But that’s not what people will be looking for when they tune in. The audience wants to see how Bruce is turning into Caitlyn and to gawk a little bit at a prominent family thrown into a tizzy by one of its formerly meekest members. They’ll watch to see Kim Kardashian and her famous husband come by to critique all the free clothes Jenner is getting from the likes of Tom Ford and Diane von Furstenberg, a problem that most trans women certainly don’t have to deal with. But what no one will be expecting is that Jenner is genuinely using this platform to discuss transgender acceptance and the struggles that they face.
“We don’t want people dying over this. We don’t want people murdered over this. What a responsibility I have toward this community,” she says at the very opening of the hour. “I just hope I get it right.”
While the focus, naturally, will be on Jenner and her famous family, she also takes the time to visit a less well-known family, one whose trans teenager recently committed suicide. That’s what is most fascinating about this show: that it seems to be using its guaranteed blockbuster ratings to do more than augment the Kardashian’s multiple revenue streams. Jenner actually wants to create some change in the world and bring awareness to the problems facing trans Americans. If she’s going to have to offer up a little bit of personal drama to get people to pay attention, then so be it. Luckily for everyone tuning in, there is plenty of truly emotional drama to go around.