Instagram, Twitter, Kanye West and the specter of Kris Jenner’s tabloid presence all play their expected roles in the premiere of I Am Cait, E!’s new docu- series following Caitlyn Jenner’s brave, scary and sensationally well-coiffed early months living her life openly as a woman.
It’s the less-anticipated appearances, though — specifically, by Caitlyn’s 89-year-old mother Esther and especially Catherine Prescott, the mother of a transgender teenager who tragically took his own life — that make it clear why Jenner is embarking on her third chapter of public life. Previously known as Bruce when winning the 1976 Olympic gold medal in men’s decathlon, Jenner then found renewed fame playing husband and dad on E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
In April, she revealed she is a transgender woman who goes by the name Caitlyn, and while I Am Cait is ostensibly her reintroduction to the public, it’s clear Jenner wants the show to be much more.
The opening moments of I Am Cait occur as Jenner’s glamorous, headline-making Vanity Fair cover hits stands, and while the morning is filled with positive media reports, primping sessions and congratulatory phone calls from her kids (Kim calls to share the news that Caitlyn’s Twitter account is on track to break President Obama’s record for the most followers added in a 24-hour period), Caitlyn quickly reminds viewers “it’s not this way for everybody” — especially those without money, privilege and fame.
And not even those things can shield Jenner from a serious case of nerves as she prepares for the first time to meet her mother Esther and sisters Pam and Lisa as a woman. “Oh, God, here we go,” she exhales, hands tapping the arm of her chair, face clenched with tension as the three women who’ve known her for her entire life — yet in some ways never known her at all — stroll up her driveway. She even frets until the last possible second about whether to sign her mother’s birthday card as Bruce or Caitlyn (thankfully choosing the latter option in the end).
Below, the five most compelling takeaways from the hour:
* The most honest interactions in the premiere seem to be between Caitlyn and Esther, an octogenarian who clearly adores her child but is grappling with how to make sense of the fact that Bruce is now Caitlyn — and reconcile the fact that she’s never been let in on her famous child’s innermost secret. While a visit from gender-identity expert Susan Landon is perhaps informative for viewers, Caitlyn and Esther don’t truly engage in real talk until they’re all by themselves. As Esther wracks her brain trying to figure out which relative Caitlyn resembles, her daughter betrays a hint of exasperation: “I think I look like myself, mom.” Esther, for her part, finally admits that she finds it, “so difficult to think of you and say ‘she’ or say ‘Caitlyn’ when I want to speak to you,” and also recollects a lifetime of feeling like Caitlyn pushed her away, an accusation Caitlyn doesn’t dispute. Why not have mom stay for a week or a month or however long it takes them to reconnect? It’s hard to say. But the visit — at least what we see on camera — ultimately proves brief, with Esther headed back to the airport by the end of the hour.
* Caitlyn’s teenage daughter Kylie first “meets” her in an accidental FaceTime call as her dental-surgery anesthesia is wearing off. The exchange is strikingly casual and void of angst — “You’re not scaring me. You look pretty!” Kylie coos — and later, the kid stops by with turquoise hair extensions for Caitlyn to try on. Yeah, it’s alarming when Kylie learns her grandma was married at 17 and earnestly responds “Kinda like me!” — to the uninitiated, she’s reportedly dating 25-year-old rapper Tyga — but somehow the parent-child dynamic here is strangely reassuring.
* There’s a certain loneliness in Caitlyn’s life — and not just because of the stark, striking imagery of her isolated hilltop home and its barren beach setting. Her admission that stepkids Rob, Khloe and Kourtney haven’t “met” her as Caitlyn, and the fact that her own sisters interact with Kim and Kanye more like starstruck fans than relatives by marriage come off like little nagging cracks in the otherwise “it’s all gonna be OK” facade I Am Cait presents.
* Caitlyn is pretty damn funny — and there’s no finer evidence in the hour than her gleeful idea to plot a “Who Wore It Best?” tabloid feature by wearing the same Tom Ford dress as ex-wife Kris. Her horror over some of Bruce’s discarded outfits — ones she and sister Pam peruse as they discuss Esther’s emotional state — are pretty choice, too.
* Finally, there’s Caitlyn’s visit to the home of Kyler Prescott — who committed suicide at 14 despite parental and classmate support — that hits home hardest. “We don’t want people dying over this,” Jenner urges, early in the episode, then adding of her own public role in the transgender right struggle, “I just hope I get it right.” And while her tearful reaction to a conversation with Kyler’s utterly graceful mom, and later to a balloon-release ceremony in young Kyler’s honor, arguably have more value as PSAs than they do in terms of genuine celebreality revelation, they’re nevertheless right-minded, gripping and ultimately necessary interludes. In the end, even if you feel a little dubious about a Kardashian dynasty brand extension, it’s hard to take too much issue with a woman courageous enough to be the very public face of what might be the last unexplored human-rights frontier in our nation’s history.