When I Am Cait, the new series documenting Caitlyn Jenner's journey to live life openly as a transgender woman, premieres on E! this Sunday at 8/7c, there will undoubtedly be a significant number of people who refuse to watch it for a variety of reasons (some of them more troubling than others). But anyone who's determined to avoid the show as part of a general policy to boycott the Kardashians should consider giving it a chance.
Full disclosure: It's an understatement to say that I dislike the Kardashian clan and all they represent. "Loathe" would not be an unfair word to use. Despite working for TVGuide.com, I've successfully avoided watching even a single episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. As much as I am happy for Caitlyn in her personal journey, admire her public coming-out, and believe this is a watershed moment for trans rights, it doesn't change the fact that I am, at best, skeptical about any form of entertainment that involves this family. (My conviction was only strengthened when I read the Vanity Fair article about Caitlyn and learned that her sons will not be participating in I Am Cait because they believe it will be a KUWTK-like circus.)
But, while I won't be seeking out back episodes of Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami any time soon, I have to admit that I Am Cait (or at least the premiere episode) won me over.
The marketing executives at E! have insisted that I Am Cait be positioned as a "docuseries" - the implication being that this is not just another reality show, aka television's version of junk food. And it's true that the show's premiere does seem as though it's infused with a greater purpose. The opening scene features Caitlyn, unable to sleep at 4:30 a.m., wrestling with "spinning thoughts" about the number of trans people who are murdered or commit suicide every year.
Of course, reality TV tropes are still present. Apparently Jenner's mother, Esther, seeing Caitlyn for the first time isn't dramatic enough on its own. Ominous music plays as Esther's walk to the front door is dragged out to an excruciating length (as a result of editing, not her age). And, of course, there's a commercial break just before she enters the house. But hey, you can't blame the network for finding a winning formula and sticking to it.
Various members of the Kardashian/Jenner family pop in and out as well, although they mostly stick to the periphery of the main narrative and are, frankly, the least interesting parts of the episode. (Kris Jenner, however, is refreshingly nowhere to be seen.) Kylie Jenner first meets Caitlyn during a FaceTime call after a trip to the dentist, with Kylie still "loopy" from the medication. A visit from Kim Kardashian and Kanye West - wearing a shirt emblazoned with his own face - does little more than highlight West's ridiculousness. Caitlyn also reveals that Rob, Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian were the last of her loved ones to meet Caitlyn. "They keep saying to me, 'We want you to live your life' ... But then they never show up, so you know something else is going on in their head," she says.
Jenner has been criticized by some for entering the trans rights movement from a position of (extreme) privilege, a fact that she addresses head-on within the first five minutes of the premiere. "I have a voice," she notes. "There are so many trans people out there who do not have a voice." Citing the overwhelming show of support she received after coming out on the cover of Vanity Fair, she remarks, "It's not this way for everybody."
But her relatability is most on display when she finds the humor in her situation - and there is, contrary to what some may believe, humor in it. "Bruce was a lot better tennis player than Caitlyn," she notes after flubbing a couple of easy points during a match with her sister.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about I Am Cait is that it allows viewers to empathize as much with Esther and Caitlyn's sisters (one of whom she came out to 30 years ago) as it does with Caitlyn herself. Esther's initial discomfort with Caitlyn clearly doesn't come from a place of bigotry or intolerance, but rather from a mother's realization that the reality of her child's life doesn't match up with her expectations of what it would be. The scenes between them are genuinely touching, and would be educational viewing for anyone harboring personal reservations about trans people. "This will take some getting used to," Esther says at one point, in what is now surely a frontrunner for Understatement of the Year.
With I Am Cait, there's no uncertainty that Caitlyn views herself as being on a mission - both as a representative of the trans community and an advocate for change. The end of the episode sees her going to visit the parents of a 14-year-old trans boy who committed suicide (switching cars twice along the way to evade the ever-present paparazzi), to see what she can do to help the movement. It's a reminder of the middle-of-the-night diary that kicks off the episode, in which Caitlyn voices her concerns about how she'll handle the responsibility that comes with her new platform.
"We don't want people dying. We don't want people murdered over this," she laments. "I just hope I get it right. I hope I get it right."
I Am Cait premieres Sunday at 8/7c on E!. Will you watch?