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I Am Cait could be great TV. Instead, it’s just a reality show.

Caitlyn Jenner's journey is the central story of I Am Cait, a show continually trapped by its need to be a reality series.
Caitlyn Jenner's journey is the central story of I Am Cait, a show continually trapped by its need to be a reality series.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

E's I Am Cait, the new Keeping Up With the Kardashians spinoff focusing on the journey of Caitlyn Jenner after her public coming out as a trans woman, is, in some ways, necessary, moving television, the kind of thing that will hopefully make all sorts of other trans people out there feel a little less alone. Jenner is taking on the role of a gentle matriarch, in a way, deeply concerned with making sure everybody is okay and doing everything she can to make their lives better.

But in other ways, I Am Cait is a show at war with itself. In its best moments, it feels a bit like a long-form documentary, the camera just happening to be there for some remarkably intimate conversations. In other moments, however, it's hampered by the fact that it's a reality show, from a very famous reality show lineage. That means it has to play by the reality show rules, which have been feeling more and more barren for a few years now.

In short, what should be moving and revelatory ends up feeling awkward and stilted.

Overdramatic cuts to commercial

There's no better example of the show's inability to transcend its reality show roots than in the first segment. Caitlyn, having welcomed her two sisters and mother to her home, has invited over an expert in gender to answer questions her elderly mother has about the whole process.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas here, like the thought that Caitlyn's mother has known Caitlyn as Bruce for her whole life, and even if you are the most well-meaning person in the world, it can be harder for someone as old as she is to change how she thinks about someone so fundamentally. Caitlyn's mother really does want to do her best, but she keeps using male pronouns and bringing up Bruce. The episode doesn't condemn or praise her. It simply suggests this is something that happens — the adjustment period is harder for some than for others.

But as the episode heads to commercial, the reality show at its center shines through. Caitlyn's mom brings up the Bible, worrying about whether what Caitlyn is doing is a sin. And even if that idea arose organically in conversation, the show plays it to the hilt, with overly dramatic music and lots of cuts to concerned expressions from all gathered. What if Caitlyn's mother can't make this adjustment? What if everything falls apart?

It doesn't, of course. In the time-honored tradition of reality shows, everything is right back to the way it was in the very next segment, and by the end of the hour, everyone is promising to do their very best to learn more about Caitlyn's journey. But the false conflict from before still stings. It's just there to add an element of dramatic stakes to a story that already has all the dramatic stakes in the world.

A trans woman undergoing transition later in life doesn't need overly dramatic music to be an interesting story. But because the genre itself requires a major crisis to close every "act" (each segment of a show between commercials), I Am Cait will manufacture one to make sure nobody tunes out.

Manufactured drama is the fundamental problem with reality TV

Reality TV has fallen so far from its first tentative steps in the 1990s and 2000s. When The Real World or Survivor or even The Osbournes (the show that gave rise to the "reality sitcom" genre Keeping Up With the Kardashians started out in) first hit the air, they felt like something exciting and new, like weird blends of documentary filmmaking with old TV forms — the hangout sitcom, say, or the game show.

Now, however, reality can't seem to find a way to leave those old crutches behind. It's too often uncomfortable with real human emotion, continually forcing the interesting stories within its confines into the narrow boxes it already knows how to sell.

Say what you will about Duck Dynasty, for instance, but it's much less interesting as a document of the wacky adventures the producers cook up for its central Robertson family than it is as a portrait of conservative Christians trying to stay true to their creed in modern America. One show is a formulaic sitcom that just happens to star "real" people; the other depicts a world we don't see often enough on television. The more producers force the latter into the former, the worse off the show is.

The same goes even more for something like I Am Cait, where Jenner is such a revealing, confident presence on camera and clearly has so much to say about how much she wants to help trans teenagers and raise awareness of trans issues. But the producers flatten it all into a far weaker format.

But maybe that's for the best. Certainly the information that Jenner wants to share about the trans experience is information that is new to many of her viewers. And if it requires a familiar format for that information to get out there, then so be it. But I kept thinking about the show that could have been.

The way I Am Cait could change reality TV for the better

Jenner's onscreen presence reminds me a lot of that of Fred Rogers, the beloved host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That PBS children's show, which ran from 1968 to 2001, was notable for just how gentle it was, how little it cared about conventional narrative structure. It trusted its young audience to stay glued to the screen because of the magnetism of Rogers's onscreen presence and the way he could directly, straightforwardly confront kids' emotions and concerns.

Like Rogers, Jenner has a kind of Zen calm. That got laughed off as befuddlement on Kardashians, but on Cait, it seems so much more potent, as if she, finally living as her true self, wants to share the gift of her happiness with the world. The segment when she goes to visit the family of a young trans boy who killed himself ends up the episode's best because of this quality. She has a real ability to sit and listen and find a way to get people to open up on camera, whether it's about her journey or theirs.

But that's exactly the sort of thing reality TV shies away from. It's afraid of anything that can't be immediately packaged into a sound bite, and it often races as far away from those smaller moments as it can, heading for the relative safety of that dramatic music and heightened cut to commercial. Reality TV built its name atop big moments of high conflict, but it's easy to forget that the early seasons of The Real World, say, had just as much room for smaller moments between roommates.

I Am Cait has the potential to get back to this kinder, gentler form of TV and become a respite in the television landscape. Indeed, it's almost there. The only question is if it will have the guts to push past what a reality show is "supposed" to be and do something new. If it does (and is rewarded for it), we just might see it change the genre itself.

I Am Cait airs Sundays at 8 pm Eastern on E.

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