I Am Cait

Caitlyn Jenner’s E! series is not invasive or insensitive or crass. But it is something far more surprising: a terrible reality show.

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner.

Photo courtesy James White/E! Entertainment

One thing many feared with I Am Cait—the eight-episode reality series following Caitlyn Jenner as she begins to live life as a transgender female—is that it would be exploitative, either of Jenner herself or the trans community at large. Airing on E!, made by the producers of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and focusing on a story that, not so long ago, was the subject of constant tabloid snickering, it could easily seem crass or disrespectful. Starring Jenner, who has spent years on Keeping Up With the Kardashians at the right hand of ex-wife Kris Jenner, reality TV’s most accomplished operator, it could easily seem self-aggrandizing or self-serving.

I Am Cait is none of these things. It is neither invasive nor self-obsessed. It begins in the middle of the night, at 4:32 a.m., with a makeup-less Jenner unleashing the thoughts keeping her from sleep, about trans youth dying, about trans youth being murdered, about whether her platform, her image, her approach can help them. “I hope I get it right,” she says. Jenner is keenly aware that she has made herself the public face of a movement for acceptance and equality, and she is willing to look like a wreck, to be a wreck, over these issues. Throughout the first episode, all that was screened for critics, she continues to do as she did at the ESPY Awards, and try to deflect attention onto the rest of the trans community.

In other words, I Am Cait is a respectable TV show with noble motives that easily evades my worst anxieties for it. And in doing so, it slams into what I never, ever could have imagined for it: dullness.

Mentioning canonical writers is a tried and true trick for making TV, that low culture form, reputable. (The Wire isn’t TV, it’s Dickens. The Wire isn’t TV, it’s Aeschylus.)

But watching Caitlyn Jenner’s story unfold over these past months, I kept wondering: Where is Shakespeare when you need him? Whatever hang-ups you have about hanging out with the Kardashians, the Bard could have wrung a folio of history plays out of their antics, which encompasses so many of the most electric livewires in American culture—including fame, sex, shame, selfies, diversity, feminism, and thrumming, humming, gunning capitalism.

The extended Kardashian clan, by living their lives so completely in public, has become the quintessential American family. They are a loyal, goofy, honest, self-important matrilineage, with each member taking a turn in the searing and lucrative limelight. They have grappled with the pedestrian (carpet stains, spiders, periods, Christmas cards) as well as pregnancy, heartbreak, drug addiction, and divorce, only to arrive, here, at a case of mistaken identity. (What’s Twelfth Night but a transgender comedy?) As Jenner, still Bruce at the time, said in her interview with Diane Sawyer, “The one real story in the family was the one I was hiding.” No kidding.

I Am Cait begins with Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair cover, skipping over the early stages of her transition: not just the surgeries but also the coming out. Many members of her family haven’t seen Caitlyn in person yet, but they have all seen her on the cover of a magazine. In the first episode, Caitlyn’s mother, Esther, and Caitlyn’s two sisters, Pam and Lisa, come to visit her as Caitlyn for the first time. Things go relatively smoothly. Esther jokes about how good-looking her kids are. Pam notices how much more relaxed Caitlyn seems. Pam and Caitlyn play tennis, a bit that I Am Cait is too tactful to make much of, even though, here we are, seeing a famous athlete flail around on a tennis court because her breasts, her long hair, and her tennis skirt are getting in the way.

Things get a little tenser when Esther asks a doctor and transgender expert that Bruce has invited to the house what she makes of the Bible passage about men dressing in women’s clothing. Dramatic music plays on the soundtrack. The doctor says the way she thinks of it is: Bruce always was a woman, not dressing in a woman’s clothes. The issue is thus resolved. When Esther and Caitlyn sit down to talk further, Esther grips her knuckles and says, repeatedly, “It’s not easy.” Neglecting her pronouns, she says, “I love Bruce, it will never change. It’s going to take getting used to, but I want to do what he wants.” But after a very short conversation in which they agree Caitlyn’s soul has remained the same, Esther seems to make enormous progress: “I loved him with all my heart, and I can love her with all my heart,” she says. This experience can’t be easy. But this looks pretty close.

I Am Cait assiduously avoids any ungainly, raw, or non-PC-feelings. As with the episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians that have chronicled Caitlyn’s coming-out, no one has lost it, cried, gotten angry, or said anything nasty. On I Am Cait, Kylie Jenner comes over bearing green hair extensions, and watches them get put in her father’s hair. She is sweet and affectionate. As she leaves for the day, Caitlyn says that was the very first time that Kylie ever saw Caitlyn as Caitlyn. No reality show in history has ever so aggressively avoided drama.

One of the burdens of being a minority is a fear that your normal emotions will be interpreted as inappropriate, as histrionics. But the emotional temperature of I Am Cait is turned so far down that the show takes on the tone of a very well-meaning PR brief. Caitlyn’s mother and daughter see her as a woman for the first time and—forget tears, anger, shock—barely react at all. Even when Caitlyn goes to visit the mother of Kyler Prescott, a transgender 14-year-old who killed himself in May, everyone remains even-keeled, telling a story of a kid who was not unloved or bullied, but misunderstood by adults. The mother of a child who died by suicide is allowed to behave however she wants, but her stoicism only adds to the sense that everyone involved in I Am Cait is trying to keep things calm and approachable.

The respectability of Caitlyn Jenner and I Am Cait is both canny and efficacious: Jenner, an affluent, attractive, breezy, happy woman, with her matching pink cardigan and nails, deeply concerned with her family’s feelings and the well-being of young people she doesn’t know personally, but passionately wants to have good, long lives, could hardly be a more appropriate emissary for the cause of transgender rights. But this doesn’t necessarily make her a great fit for a reality TV show. That is not an insult: It takes an outsize personality to thrive on reality TV, not just an outsize story, and transgender people are no more likely to have those than anyone else. (Kim, a reality TV natural, provides the episode’s only really lively moments, going through Caitlyn’s closet and demanding she throw a dress out. Kanye West also makes an appearance that suggests a wonderful comedy called Kanye West Makes Polite Small Talk.)

Even before Bruce became Caitlyn, Bruce’s appearance on Keeping Up With the Kardashians neatly explicated our transformed understanding of fame: once a reward for what one did, it is now a prize for who one is. Bruce, an icon of hunky, Olympian masculinity-turned-harried house husband, was constantly lapped by Kris and the girls at this sport, because—in retrospect, it seemed—she was always hiding her true self. But I Am Cait suggests who Caitlyn really is: a woman with no desire to be wholly available to the camera. Bruce Jenner was an act. But now that she’s Caitlyn Jenner, she’s still not for show.