I Am Cait, the new reality show—I’m sorry, docu-series—about Caitlyn Jenner, has a conflicted relationship with its genre. The premiere, which aired Sunday night on the E! network, home of the Kardashians’ almost hypnotic banality and a show about botched plastic surgery operations, opens with Caitlyn sitting on her bed in the early hours of the morning—messy hair, no makeup, dark shadows under her eyes. “It’s 4:32 in the morning, and I can’t sleep,” she tells the camera, sharing her anxieties about the responsibility she feels for the transgender community, for teenagers at risk of suicide and murder. “My mind is just spinning with thoughts. I just hope I get it right. I hope I get it right.”
The bad lighting, the bathrobe, the unmade bed: Even if the monologue is staged and rehearsed, it’s an impressive scene, intimate and vulnerable in a way reality television rarely gets to be. After her brave Diane Sawyer interview in March and her bold Vanity Fair debut last month, this attempt at messy honesty is the next stage in Caitlyn Jenner’s impeccably managed introduction to the world. It’s a promise that the rest of the show, as baldly inspirational and frequently moving as it is, never quite makes good on. In between the Kardashian-style artifice and the earnest advocacy, I Am Cait risks losing sight of its greatest asset: Caitlyn herself.
I Am Cait is made by Bunim/Murray Productions, the same production company as Keeping Up With the Kardashians. When Bunim/Murray created The Real World 23 years ago, they invented modern reality TV: the genre was soapy and wild but could also be socially vital, with frank discussions of racism and religion and AIDS that couldn’t be found anywhere else on television. In the ensuing years, The Real World became a show about hot people hanging out in hot tubs, and Bunim/Murray went on the produce Bad Girls Club and more Kardashian spin-offs than I can count. With I Am Cait, the company is perhaps returning to its roots.
Worries that the show would be sensationalist and tacky are unfounded, but there are still some pleasurable Kardashian touches mixed in with the sincere entreaties: Kylie Jenner stops by to put extensions in Caitlyn’s hair; Kim and Kanye visit to advise her on wardrobe; members of Jenner’s entourage are identified with labels like “friend/personal assistant.” Kanye plays supportive son-in-law, explaining his Adidas sock-shoes to Caitlyn’s befuddled sister Pam. "I think this is one of the strongest things that has happened in our existence as human beings,” he tells Caitlyn. “Cause you couldn’t have been up against more. Your daughter’s a supermodel, you’re a celebrity. Every type of thing, and it was still like, ‘Fuck everybody, this is who I am.’”
It’s a sign of the times that I Am Cait is not this summer’s only basic-cable reality show—I mean docu-series!—with a transgender star. (To quote an amoral reality-TV producer on Lifetime’s fictional series UnReal: “Gay is so in. Actually it’s like two years ago. It’s transgender now.”) Jenner was beaten to the air by ABC Family’s Becoming Us, which focuses on a kid whose parent is transitioning, and by TLC’s similarly named I Am Jazz, about the 14-year-old Youtube star Jazz Jennings. Both shows have more conflict and drama than I Am Cait, even if they are only more heightened versions of typical high school concerns. Jazz worries about bathing suit shopping and bra sizes and crushes on boys, while her supportive mother frets about testosterone levels. The specificity gives it universal resonance, a lesson that I Am Cait, which wants to be all things to all people, might learn from.
Afraid of being seen as representative of all transgender lives, Caitlyn Jenner is sometimes too quick to take us away from her own life. The star of the hour might be Esther Jenner, Caitlyn’s 88-year-old mother, who is so clearly confused and anxious and unsure of how to say the right thing. Late in the episode, Caitlyn leaves her Malibu compound to pay a visit to the grieving mother of a trans teen who recently committed suicide, and then attends the memorial service. (Caitlyn has to take three cars to dodge paparazzi.) The mother’s story is important and affecting, but it’s dramatically inert—a quick parachute into another person’s life, followed by a black screen listing the phone number of a suicide hotline. It lacks the simple pathos of Caitlyn’s conversations with her mother, who stands in for audience members who are still learning.
If reality television tends to thrive on characters who lack self-awareness, Caitlyn is self-aware to a fault. She knows that she is the world’s first openly transgender mega-celebrity, and she knows that she has advantages few other trans people have. Activists have worried that attention to Jenner will distract from the dangers faced by transgender women without her wealth, whiteness, and fame. From the Diane Sawyer interview to her acceptance speech at the ESPY Awards this month, Caitlyn has been well aware of this risk and wants to use her massive platform for good. That might not lead to the most exciting television show, but it suggests a plausible path forward for the series. Instead of the individual story of a 65-year-old woman transitioning in the public eye, I Am Cait might reveal itself to be the Bildungsroman of an emerging activist: a former athlete and reality-TV husband figuring out how to be the global spokeswoman for a cause.