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 real-life "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 briefly 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.
Where: ABC Family
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)