Caitlyn Jenner has a huge amount of responsibility -- to her family, to her children, to the transgender community, to transgender teens, to the families of trans people, to keeping an optimistic attitude, to nailing the hair, the makeup, the accessories.
No wonder she can’t sleep.
“Am I going to do everything right?,” a makeup-free Jenner says from bed in the first moments of the first episode of E!'s “I Am Cait,” which happen to be happening at 4:30 a.m. “Am I going to say the right things? Do I project the right image? My mind’s just spinning with thoughts.
“I just hope I get it right. I hope I get it right.”
And so begins an hour on Sunday evening that’s part documentary, part family-therapy session, part public-service announcement, part mission statement and part what seems to be a soft-focus, intimate-interview homage to Diane Sawyer. Part reality show? As measured by the low amount of drama and overload of positivity in this episode, not so much. At least not yet.
That Vanity Fair cover bursts onto a screen in Jenner’s Malibu home, where she sits made up with big curlers in her hair, surrounded by stylists and assistants, and takes congratulatory calls from Rob Kardashian and then Kim Kardashian, who of course discusses Caitlyn’s instant popularity on social media, Kim’s natural environment.
“Let’s go for the record! I love records!,” the former Olympian shouts after finding out that @Caitlyn_Jenner might steal the Twitter crown from @BarackObama by getting to 1 million followers fastest. (Yeah, that happened, in four hours instead of five.)
But wait! It’s not this way for all trans people, Jenner reminds us, in case anyone thought having a dedicated hairstylist and an assistant laying out three outfits for her to choose from was standard issue for anyone. “From that standpoint, I’m blessed,” she says.
Nervous, she chooses a lovely white blouse and pants with white heels as mom Esther and sisters Pam and Lisa are driven from the airport to Malibu. “I already told ‘em, you’re coming to meet Caitlyn,” Jenner says, speaking of herself -- not for the last time in the hour -- in the third person. Kinda weird, that. A minion suggests that Caitlyn button up just one more button, because this is her mother on the way.
Cut to a car service, where Mom and the siblings are looking way more tense than Caitlyn.
Esther winces as she talks about seeing tabloids in the supermarket. Pam notes that her brother confided in her 30 years ago and then didn’t bring it up again until a couple of years ago. Lisa just looks unhappy. None of the women is great with the pronouns, with “hims” and “hes” sprinkled liberally through the conversation.
“Everybody, it’s OK,” an exuberant Caitlyn says in the foyer of her home as the family enters and the nervousness explodes into smiles, hugs, laughter and compliments. Esther’s tears eventually follow.
“It is overwhelming,” says Mom, having been overcome by emotion during the greeting. “I guess I’ve been preparing myself. I knew he was going to be dressed as a woman. I think he’s a very good-looking woman. He’s still Bruce.”
Everyone moves on to lunch, with a surprise Facetime call coming in from a dentist-appointment-dopey Kylie Jenner -- “Kylie has not met Caitlyn yet,” her dad says, wondering if she should have turned the phone away -- and then it’s a sit-down for everyone with a counselor who works with families of transgender people. Once again, it’s a bit of a pronoun salad as even the counselor trips up between using he and she. Esther wonders if young Bruce was difficult to clothes-shop with because of the gender dysphoria (the counselor says that around age 5, kids kind of figure out there’s something different going on for them) then asks for an interpretation of a Bible verse about men who dress as women.
The counselor’s answer: Don’t worry, because Caitlyn has always been a woman.
The day continues on the tennis court, where sister Pam wonders why Caitlyn hasn’t introduced herself to her Bruce-era guy friends yet and Caitlyn lets Pam know she now understands why women need sports bras.
Then it was time for Kylie to meet Caitlyn. “Where’s my dad?,” she asks, and someone answers, “He’s in there.”
“I do want to meet her,” Kylie says as if she’s not speaking about a person she’s known all her life. “I’ll be a little uncomfortable at the beginning, but I think we’re both ready.” Ready enough for Kylie to work bright blue extensions into her dad’s flowing brown hair before the end of the visit.
“Isn’t this more fun than sitting around talking about sports? Watching golf?,” Caitlyn asks her daughter, stopping short of declaring hairstyling to be more fun than playing golf.
Caitlyn throws out the clothes from her former life, stopping to flash a hideous striped men’s shirt and laughingly ask, “What the hell was Bruce thinking?” But a bigger question for her is what folks like Kylie and Esther are thinking and saying after they leave her presence.
What’s needed is a chat between Caitlyn and Esther while everyone else heads for the beach. “It’s going to be so difficult for me to think of you as ‘she’ and to say ‘Caitlyn’ when I want to speak to you or call your attention, or say ‘Hey Caitlyn’ instead of ‘Hey Bruce,’” Mom says.
With emotion cracking her voice, Esther continues: “It’s not easy. It’s not easy.”
Cue the Diane Sawyer moment (truthfully, there have already been lots of soft-focus shots) as Caitlyn turns into an interviewer and pokes her mom for specifics about what’s not easy before launching into an explanation what she calls her isolationism. “I feel like Caitlyn fits in a lot better into society than Bruce ever did, because Bruce had to lie about all that sort of stuff,” the 65-year-old tells her mother, “where Caitlyn sort of has a place.”
“I love Bruce. It’ll never change,” Esther tells the camera. “That’ll never change. It’s going to take some getting used to. But I want to do what he wants.”
But enough about Caitlyn’s personal issues -- it’s time to move on to other topics, such as solving the problem of suicide among transgender teens, which she discusses with her mom and sisters. “I know how these kids feel,” Caitlyn says after seeing a news story about another trans teen taking his own life and revisiting the thoughts of suicide she’d previously revealed in her interview with Sawyer. “That kind of hit home.”
But enough seriousness -- it’s time for the flashier part of the family to visit! Here comes Kimye! Kim says Caitlyn looks skinny enough to be supermodel Kendall Jenner’s mom, and Kanye West, no stranger to hyperbole, proclaims recent events to be “one of the strongest things that have happened in, you know, our existence as human beings that are so controlled by perception.”
Also, in the closest thing to a reality-show moment since the Vanity Fair and Twitter celebration, step-grandma wants to see what a pregnant Kim is wearing under that jacket, and sister Pam needs to understand Kanye’s untied shoelaces (they’re sock-shoes, Yeezus explains, and the laces are after the fact). Kim gets a tour of Caitlyn’s closet, with the clothes that were gifts from Tom Ford and Diane Von Furstenburg, and notices that her mom Kris Jenner and stepdad Caitlyn both have the same Tom Ford dress, in different colors. They conspire to prank Kris by staging a “Who Wore It Better?” moment in the near future.
Now, 47 minutes into the episode, it’s time to get to the meat of the public-service aspect of the show, which sets Caitlyn up as a newbie transgender ambassador. Caitlyn changes cars three times to shake the paparazzi -- “I heard the price tag just for a picture of me was $250,000,” she says -- and heads to San Diego to visit with the family of that teen, Kyler Prescott, who killed himself just days before the arrival of a revised birth certificate identifying him as male.
“I can’t even imagine what Kyler’s family is going through. I don’t know what I can do at this point except just be a friend,” she says.
Once in the door and cozy on the couch, she’s suddenly Caitlyn Sawyer once again, eliciting information from Kyler’s mom for benefit of the cameras. It was the adults, not the bullying kids, who made life the most difficult for Katharine Prescott’s son. “Even with the full support of the family, it’s still a hard journey ...,” Prescott says. “Really, where he had the most problems was with adults not understanding. People out in society who really didn’t understand that he needed them to use a male pronoun.”
“We need more tolerance and empathy for other people,” Caitlyn tells the cameras.
The former “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” star then accepts an invite to a memorial service for Kyler, and a song written for the 14-year-old plays over scenes from a balloon-release ceremony where another teen reveals she attempted suicide also.
“Seek help. You just have to get through that day,” Jenner declares, and the balloons are released -- and a card listing the phone number for the Trevor Lifeline, a teen crisis hotline, fills the screen.
Hardly a cliffhanger, but teases from future episodes hint at a rocky road ahead for Caitlyn. Transition is about more than hair and makeup, says one person, and another -- let’s just say a Kardashian -- complains that Caitlyn need not bash the girls on her way up.
Smells like a little reality TV might actually be in store down the line.