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It’s dog­gone hot out there! / D3

out of five

SO, which is it — a coura­geous ef­fort to ad­vo­cate for the needs of trans­gen­der peo­ple ev­ery­where, or yet another avari­cious ex­ten­sion of the in­sub­stan­tial but ef­fec­tive Kar­dashian brand?

Based on its Sun­day-night pre­mière, it’s prob­a­bly fair to say the new E! se­ries I Am Cait is at least a lit­tle bit of both. The heav­ily hyped se­ries, which of­fers a re­al­ity-TV-style (mean­ing rather heav­ily con­trived) look in­side the life of trans­gen­der celebrity Cait­lyn (for­merly Bruce) Jen­ner, opened with an hour-long episode that of­fered all the right ad­vo­cacy mes­sages and fea­tured pretty much all the pre­dictably tire­some Kar­dashian-pop­u­lated mo­ments one might ex­pect.

From its open­ing mo­ments — which showed a bleary-eyed Cait­lyn Jen­ner in bed, fret­ting to­ward the cam­era about the pres­sure she’s feel­ing to make sure this show does jus­tice to the trans­gen­der cause — I Am Cait seemed de­ter­mined to es­tab­lish it­self as a se­ries that will be im­por­tant.

And while there was lit­tle rea­son to doubt Jen­ner’s sin­cer­ity as she talked about the high sui­cide rate — es­pe­cially among young peo­ple — in the trans com­mu­nity, and how she feels a great sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to raise aware­ness and ad­vance un­der­stand­ing with the show, she quickly un­der­cut her own cred­i­bil­ity by laps­ing into for­mu­laic Kar­dashian-TV be­hav­iour.

The se­ries opener was barely 10 min­utes old be­fore its pro­duc­ers found a way for Jen­ner to re­ceive on-cam­era phone calls from Khloe and Rob Kar­dashian, fol­lowed by an even longer ex­change with Kim Kar­dashian West, whose sole pur­pose seems to be let­ting view­ers know that Cait­lyn Jen­ner has a Twit­ter ac­count.

Jen­ner seemed to grasp the unique na­ture — and priv­i­leged path — of her jour­ney in one on-cam­era mo­ment when she ob­served, “You have to re­al­ize that it’s not this way for ev­ery­body; there are so many peo­ple that have strug­gled with fam­ily, who strug­gle with friends, who strug­gle with ridicule or not hav­ing fi­nan­cial re­sources...”

But be­fore that seem­ingly sen­si­tive ob­ser­va­tion had a chance to sink in, view­ers were treated to a se­quence in­volv­ing a visit from Kim and hubby Kanye West. The level to which these peo­ple are dis­con­nected from the real world was summed up by Kanye West’s praise­ful pro­nounce­ment about Jen­ner’s brav­ery in the face of great ad­ver­sity: “You couldn’t have been up against more — your daugh­ter’s a su­per­model, and you’re a celebrity... and it was still, like, ‘(ex­ple­tive) ev­ery­body; this is who I am.’”

Oh, yeah, those are the great­est ob­sta­cles most trans peo­ple face as they try to find a nav­i­ga­ble path to per­sonal truth. And as if to il­lus­trate how com­pletely obliv­i­ous they are, that com­ment was fol­lowed by footage of Jen­ner lead­ing Kim to a gi­gan­tic walk-in closet, where she showed off racks full of de­signer cloth­ing pro­vided, free of charge, to Cait­lyn by the likes of Tom Ford and Diane von Fürsten­berg. Sheesh. The pre­mière also in­cluded ex­tended footage of a visit by Jen­ner’s mother, Es­ther, and sis­ters Pam and Lisa, which did of­fer some re­veal­ing mo­ments about the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by par­ents and sib­lings try­ing to un­der­stand and ac­cept a fam­ily mem­ber’s trans jour­ney.

Also fea­tured was an in­ter­ac­tion be­tween Jen­ner and the par­ents of a San Diego teen who strug­gled with trans­gen­der is­sues be­fore com­mit­ting sui­cide at the age of 14.

“I know how these kids can feel; I’ve had some very dark mo­ments in my life,” 65-year-old Cait­lyn of­fered, re­call­ing hav­ing once been at home, alone, with a gun in his hand, think­ing about how easy it would be to just end the strug­gle.

And it’s in those se­quences — which, how­ever fleet­ingly, feel as gen­uine as re­al­ity-TV is ca­pa­ble of por­tray­ing — that I Am Cait feels like it might ac­tu­ally brush up against the higher pur­pose it claims to be pur­su­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, the se­ries opener pro­vided far too few of them, and far too much of what view­ers have grown ac­cus­tomed to see­ing in the ex­tended clan’s var­i­ous other E! net­work of­fer­ings. De­spite its po­si­tion­ing as “un­scripted” and “re­al­ity” pro­gram­ming, it’s likely that folks seek­ing to un­der­stand trans­gen­der is­sues would find a more bal­anced and nu­anced por­trayal of trans life in such thought­fully scripted pro­grams as Trans­par­ent and Or­ange Is The New Black.

Be­fore any­one spends any more time as­sign­ing terms like “heroic” and “coura­geous” to Jen­ner, let’s con­sider how hard her ex­tended fam­ily has worked dur­ing the past decade to get on TV, and get rich and fa­mous with­out ever re­ally do­ing any­thing of sub­stance to merit such wealth or no­to­ri­ety.

Is this hap­pily reborn Cait­lyn ac­tu­ally try­ing to help, or merely try­ing to main­tain a celebrity lifestyle by as­sum­ing a pop­u­lar and po­lit­i­cally cor­rect pos­ture? Much will be re­vealed as the rest of I Am Cait­lyn’s eight-episode sea­son un­folds, and view­ers will be able to judge for them­selves whether this se­ries rep­re­sents a right­eous cru­sade or just another Kar­dashian-TV con job.

E!

Cait­lyn Jen­ner says she’s un­der pres­sure to ad­vo­cate for the trans­gen­der cause, but the ‘Kar­dashian fac­tor’ strikes at her cred­i­bil­ity.

BRAD OSWALD

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