But the biggest takeaway from the first I Am Cait installment is that fame interacts strangely with something as personal as a gender transition. Early on, Jenner and her stylists cheer as her Vanity Fair cover is revealed on TV; later, Jenner's mother, Esther, and Jenner’s daughter, Kylie, “meet” Caitlyn for the first time. That’s right: Immediate family members were introduced to the female-presenting Jenner after Diane Sawyer, Buzz Bissinger, and the rest of the world were, at least according to the chronology of the special. It’s especially strange when Kylie reveals she picked out turquoise hair extensions for Jenner based on Googling images of her.
Bissinger’s Vanity Fair profile of Jenner revealed that Jenner’s older children objected to her decision to document her new life using the same TV producers who made Keeping Up With the Kardashians, fearing the results would “devolve into maximum mayhem and minimal social awareness.” Thankfully, that nightmare has not come to pass. With its contemplative music and sociopolitical seriousness, the show has a different feel than the one that spawned it. But there is one fundamental, distracting similarity: In its editing and with its seemingly pre-rehearsed speeches for the camera, I Am Cait mimics typical reality TV by trying to force dramatic narratives onto day-to-day life. And while spotting the fakeness was part of the fun of the Kardashians, here it verges on counterproductive.
* * *
The most emotionally moving parts of the episode revolve around the 89-year-old Esther seeing her son as a daughter for the first time. When Esther arrives in Malibu, Jenner greets her by saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Esther looks up at her newly statuesque child and replies, sweetly, “I knew it would be.” Shortly after, Esther talks about how much she loves and supports Jenner, even as she continues to think of her as Bruce. “It’s a lot of getting used to,” she says, on the verge of tears. “But I will. I will.”
This all happens within the first 12 minutes of the episode. At no point does Esther say anything mean or disapproving. She just is going to need time before she can start referring to her child as “Caitlyn” with the same ease she once said “Bruce.” And yet for much of the rest of the episode the producers keep returning to Esther’s difficulties, as if her position—loving but still processing—is a point of conflict. (There is one interesting moment, when Esther brings up the Bible’s prohibition against cross-dressing, and an LGBT-issues counselor says that Jenner’s not a man pretending to be a woman—Jenner’s a woman, period.) The story line finally ends during a contrived-seeming conversation on a couch between Jenner and Esther. “I’m dragging you along with me,” Jenner says, and her mother just laughs faintly and says “okay.”