In­stantly lik­able

ABC Fam­ily’s new docu-se­ries is a frank and sweet look at son and trans­gen­der mom.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARY McNA­MARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC mary.mcna­mara@la­times.com

Tele­vi­sion critic Mary McNa­mara says trans­gen­der par­ents and fam­ily mem­bers in ‘Be­com­ing Us’ of­fer a gen­uine por­trait.

Talk about great tim­ing. Days af­ter Olympic gold medal­ist Cait­lyn Jen­ner ap­peared on the cover of Van­ity Fair, ABC Fam­ily pre­mieres its sweet and in­sight­ful new docu-se­ries “Be­com­ing Us,” which fol­lows two fam­i­lies, each with a tran­si­tion­ing trans­gen­der par­ent.

Like Jen­ner’s cover shot, with its un­abashed ref­er­ence to the old-school pinup, “Be­com­ing Us” re­minds us how ef­fec­tively popular cul­ture can ad­dress se­ri­ous is­sues by skirt­ing solem­nity and sanc­ti­mony in fa­vor of sim­ple hu­man­ity.

An­chored by an in­stantly lik­able teen, “Be­com­ing Us” uses a screen that of­ten sub­di­vides into video blogs, FaceTime chats and texts to make its pref­er­ence for selfie over soap­box in­stantly clear. Ben Le­hwald, an Illi­nois ju­nior with a pas­sion for photography and pos­si­bly the most ex­pres­sive eye­brows on tele­vi­sion since Mr. Spock, nar­rates his life as the child of a tran­si­tion­ing trans­gen­der woman.

In do­ing so, he and his fam­ily, as well as his girl­friend and her fam­ily (which in one of the more sus­pi­cious bits of serendip­ity also in­cludes a fa­ther who is tran­si­tion­ing) ad­dress both the par­tic­u­lars of their sit­u­a­tion and the uni­ver­sal­ity.

Though billed as a re­al­life “Trans­par­ent,” a ref­er­ence to last year’s show on Ama­zon in which Jef­frey Tam­bor plays a trans­gen­der woman who is also a par­ent to three grown chil­dren, “Be­com­ing Us” is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Ben is not grown, nor is his girl­friend, Danielle Mol­nar. Carly and Daniel’s de­ci­sion to tran­si­tion, though lib­er­at­ing for them, came at a price. Although ev­ery­one in­volved sup­ports the two, they also read­ily ac­knowl­edge the con­fu­sion, anger, pain and sense of be­trayal that fam­ily mem­bers can feel when a par­ent trans­forms in such a pro­found way.

The beauty of “Be­com­ing Us” is that no one pre­tends oth­er­wise. When Carly brief ly tells her story of decades at­tempt­ing to find hap­pi­ness as a man even though she knew she was not one, she is re­morse­ful about the pain she caused her wife, Suzy. Suzy is un­der­stand­ably hurt and an­gry about the turn her life has taken; her re­la­tion­ship with Carly cur­rently re­volves solely around Ben.

Still, they re­main a cou­ple who di­vorced for rea­sons other than lack of love, and their dy­namic is fas­ci­nat­ing to watch. Scenes be­tween the two of­ten begin un­com­fort­ably, but the en­coun­ters in­vari­ably end with the ease of fa­mil­iar­ity. “You even stole my hair­dresser,” Suzy says with a laugh at one point.

“Damn you.”

Mean­while, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Danielle and Ben of­fers so much breadth and depth to the story that it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve it was not en­gi­neered. (Although Danielle’s fa­ther, Daniel, has been tran­si­tion­ing since Danielle was 7, he is not com­pletely com­fort­able living pub­licly as a woman, pre­fer­ring, when we meet him, male ad­jec­tives and a more an­drog­y­nous look.)

This be­ing a tele­vi­sion show, things must hap­pen — and some­times the script­ing shows. When Suzy and Carly meet to dis­cuss Ben’s grades or when Ben’s step­sis­ter comes home to plan her wed­ding, “Be­com­ing Us” feels solidly or­ganic (though the sea­sons jump around a bit). But when Carly takes Daniel to get fit­ted for a bra, the scene un­nec­es­sar­ily in­cludes Danielle and Ben; in the sec­ond episode, a side nar­ra­tive in­volv­ing Ben’s friends mostly falls flat.

For­tu­nately, the main play­ers are com­pelling enough to over­look the in­evitable strains that come from shoe­horn­ing any real life into a tele­vi­sion se­ries. Like their son, Carly and Suzy are frank, funny and won­der­fully ex­pres­sive in a very nat­u­ral way, while Danielle is so gen­er­ous it bor­ders on wor­ri­some.

The real con­stancy of any fam­ily is com­pro­mise. In the best cir­cum­stance, the ledger of give and take is bal­anced by love rather than the stric­tures of quid pro quo. The loss that Ben, Suzy and Danielle feel is real and un­der­stand­able, but the giddy re­lief that Carly and Daniel feel at be­ing able to live as women is pal­pa­ble and in­fec­tious.

Many of us have par­ents, or chil­dren, who turn out to be not quite who we thought they were; few of us have the op­por­tu­nity to wit­ness such trans­for­ma­tive joy.

Though not yet 20, Ben and Danielle, who are no longer to­gether, seem ca­pa­ble of rec­og­niz­ing both the pain and the epiphany, and that alone is amaz­ing.

Jean White­side ABC Fam­ily

THE IN­SIGHT­FUL new docu-se­ries “Be­com­ing Us” fol­lows Carly, a trans­gen­der woman, and her fam­ily, es­pe­cially son Ben, as they deal with her tran­si­tion.

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