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Arts and Entertainment

'I Am Cait': Touching, Awkward And Maybe Realest Reality TV Show Ever

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If you think Caitlyn Jenner's new E! reality show will be "Keeping Up With Caitlyn," think again. LAist was invited to an early screening of the first episode of I Am Cait this week at the London Hotel, and we saw a nuanced and at times emotional look at the intense challenges of transitioning, the responsibilities of fame and mostly, the significance of family.

"The Reveal," the title of the first of the eight-episode series, begins with Caitlyn without makeup, lying awake in bed confronting her fears and hopes as she begins this process—referencing both her transformation and the TV show itself. For her, it’s not just a personal journey, it’s about providing education, acceptance and understanding for transgender people, which may save lives. What began with the Dianne Sawyer interview and was solidified by her moving ESPY Awards speech, is fleshed out in I Am Cait by Caitlyn’s frequent references to the dismal death statistics in her transgender community. Caitlyn wants to be more than a celebrity: she wants to be an advocate.

When Caitlyn was on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, she was always the comic relief and hence, it was hard to like or respect her. Being her “true self” on I Am Cait, she’s not only likeable, she’s completely natural, a feat for reality TV. In fact, we’d say the program is one of the realest reality shows out there, definitely on E! anyway.

The most powerful parts of the premiere episode feature Caitlyn and her mother. Coming to terms with the drastic change—on camera in front of millions of people no less—is, difficult, Caitlyn's mom admits. She is teary-eyed more than a few times in the episode. It takes her awhile to call her daughter the correct pronouns, though she realizes that her child still has the same soul. She eventually shares in the joy of her offspring finally living her truth and says that she’s even come to feel more pride than she did in the Olympic Decathlon days. These very honest scenes are likely to fulfill Jenner’s goal of helping families of transgender teens and adults who watch the show. It’s okay to feel conflicted about this change, but an effort to understand and have compassion for people who are different makes all the difference. This hits home even more when Caitlyn visits the parents of Kyler Prescott, a trans teen who recently committed suicide. Assigned female at birth, Prescott couldn’t cope even with his parents' support. The visit between Caitlyn and Prescott's family is kind of awkward. Here is a major celebrity coming into the home of Prescott's family with a swarm of cameras while they discuss Prescott's death. However, the sentiments are extremely affecting.

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There are many awkward moments on I Am Cait, but not in the calculated, milked-dry-for-drama way that the Kardashians made a formula. Well, not too many anyway. There are the typical cuts to commercials before a few of the more anxious scenes and after some of the poignant ones, but for the most part the show has a truly unscripted, languid flow about it, even when members of Caityln’s famous brood stop by her home. In the premiere, this includes her daughter Kylie Jenner as well as her stepdaughter Kim Kardashian and hubby Kanye West. West is notably—and thankfully—quiet for most the visit, other than a sort of sweet goodbye when he tells Caitlyn to take on his attitude, “Fuck Everybody! This is who I am!”

Caitlyn meets Kylie for the first time as a transgender woman on camera, and this scene is played out for maximum cuteness, with the plump-lipped 17-year-old giving Caitlyn some of her teal-hued hair extensions. Like all the ladies of this reality TV empire, Caitlyn has her own glam squad and a lot of her interviews are done while getting makeup and hair done. It appears that Caitlyn's team will be given substantial air time both as her confidantes and employees.

Our one complaint about the show is the emphasis on external beauty and materialism. Caitlyn is seen fretting about what to wear quite a bit. We get that this an exciting new part of her life and that it’s part of “passing,” which establishes her new identity. But there’s an inordinate amount of concern and attention placed on looks and fashion here. The trans community is conflicted on this point, too. Orange is the New Black transgender star Laverne Cox penned a moving essay, saying that she hopes that people realize that there's more to transgender people than their looks: "Yes, Caitlyn looks amazing and is beautiful but what I think is most beautiful about her is her heart and soul, the ways she has allowed the world into her vulnerabilities." Samantha Allen, a journalist who writes about gender issues, wrote in the Daily Beast about Caitlyn's Vanity Fair cover: "When we pick our jaws up off the floor, we could remember that being transgender is more than just a visual phenomenon—it’s a lived experience that requires social acceptance and legal support." Trans writer Zinnia Jones explained to Vocativ why it's a bad idea to judge trans women by their attractiveness: "Appearing as a cis woman is considered superior to and more desirable than being a visible trans woman... those who can appear as conventionally beautiful cis women are valued most of all, and this is then presented as the ultimate goal for all of us."

Focusing on beauty is to be expected from E! producers, but we fear that it might give haters ammo against Caitlyn and maybe even muddle her message. Caitlyn has the financial means to live a comfortable life and to improve her looks via the very best plastic surgery. Others don't have the same privileges or resources, which she vaguely notes in the premiere. Brett Mason, a transgender person who does not identify as male or female, told the Canadian CBC News, "Not everyone can afford to just pay out of pocket and get all their surgery done. For most of us, it actually takes years."

However, a glimpse at the previews for upcoming episodes shows Caitlyn at a trans support group during which these issues are brought up, (“It’s not all about hair and makeup!” says one angry group member), so we anticipate this issue will be addressed in more depth.

Still, Cait and Kylie bonding for the first time over fake hair and Instagram selfies is so evocative of today’s social media frivolity, it almost feels like parody. And a scene with Kim and Cait going through her closet is funny until they spot a Tom Ford dress also owned by Kris Jenner and joke about a possible “Who Wore It Better” piece comparing them. (Some people have even taken to the internet to compare Kris and Caitlyn's looks.) The moment has a weird competitive feel that recalls the social media chatter post-Vanity Fair cover. The general consensus was that Cait looked better than her ex, so she “won,” the implication being that attractive gals have more value and that women are innately competitive. Caitlyn says she still has a lot to learn about being a woman. Hopefully, as she continues her on-camera journey, it won’t be completely via her attention-obsessed daughters and stepdaughters. This is all playing out on TV, so that will be challenging, but we think she's up for it.

'I Am Cait' premieres on E! on July 26 at 8 p.m.