In the opening of E!’s highly anticipated, certainly heartfelt but anticlimactic reality show “I Am Cait” (premiering Sunday), we travel to the top of the severely parched hills that overlook Malibu, Calif., where Caitlyn Jenner sits in her house surrounded by those who act as friends or advisers or stylists (the distinctions blur) while she is basking, nervously, in the instant sensation of her Vanity Fair magazine cover appearance.
The release of that cover image in early June — more like a detonation — sets off a flurry of congratulatory phone calls, including one from Cait’s ultra-famous stepdaughter Kim Kardashian. “All eyes on you now,” Kim says. “You cannot disappoint.”
It’s a stern counsel, and it sets the tone for the entire show, which is not so much a full-on reality show as it is a show about spreading a message of acceptance and positive vibes. With what seems to be real worry and even fear about what awaits, Caitlyn refers often to her new “responsibilities” as the world’s most famous transgender woman.
“I Am Cait” is, on some level, the most respectful melding of television’s notion of cinema verite and Hollywood’s highest form of top-notch, controlled publicity. Rarely could a show be so completely about the management of reactions — reaction in the room, reaction in the next room, reaction down the street, reaction from family and, most of all, reaction from the entire world vis-a-vis the all-consuming Internet. “I Am Cait” is about reacting to the various ways that reaction can be reacted to.
Such caution and care feels entirely out of “E!’s” expertise. Although it is populated with characters (people) who are more than familiar with the conventions of the reality genre, this is a reality show in which the main subject is doing everything she can to avoid conflict for conflict’s sake. Absent a series of ginned-up arguments and raised voices, “I Am Cait” plays like a TV show about the making of a possible TV show.
The beautifully, meticulously styled Jenner — her closet suddenly filled with gratis offerings from Tom Ford, Diane von Furstenberg and other designers — seems genuinely giddy about introducing the world to Cait, who until this point has been known as Bruce Jenner, the gold-medal Olympic champion. If you’re not up on this story and its recent developments (the amicable-as-possible separation from Kris Jenner and Kardashian world; the Diane Sawyer interview; the Vanity Fair cover; the acceptance speech for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award), then I doubt my powers to coax you out from under your rock.
Suffice to say that Jenner’s reemergence as Caitlyn has been remarkable for its accompanying gestures of goodwill and support from the public at large. The TV show wisely begins this journey by bringing in Jenner’s mother, Esther, and two siblings, Lisa and Pam, so that they can “meet” Cait for the first time. Although not without some tears and apprehension, the scenes between Cait and her mother come closer than anything else to wiping away a producer’s tendency toward artifice; nothing shines through like the love a mother has for her child.
Esther freely admits to struggling with what so many others find problematic: pronouns, intimate details, changes, acceptance. It’s hard to let Bruce go and shift seamlessly into seeing Cait. Reflecting on the decathlon medal ceremony at the 1976 Olympics, Esther remembers thinking that she could never be more proud of her son than she was at that moment. “And you know, I was wrong,” she says. “I love him with all my heart, and I certainly love her with all my heart.”
That’s all truly nice, but “I Am Cait” is not going to hold viewers for long by only being truly nice. In the past eight or so weeks, we’ve been so busy elevating and praising Caitlyn Jenner that we’ve forgotten something any casual watcher of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” remembers all too well: This person who was once Bruce and is now Cait can be inscrutably spacey and occasionally weird.
Though she is fully invested in her glamourous duty to carry the torch for all transgender people everywhere, I hope Jenner also finds the freedom to be embarrassing and strange. Shouldn’t we all have that right?
I Am Cait (one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on E!