Kanye West has a fixed grin on his face. He says something innocuous but supportive of Caitlyn. You can tell he has been steeling himself for this. Then Caitlyn's mom asks West a bizarre question about his sneakers. It's a weird moment among many in I Am Cait (Sunday, E! Canada, 8 p.m.).
Even if you have no taste for reality TV, think the Kardashians are a blight upon the culture and only vaguely remember Bruce Jenner as an American Olympic athlete from long ago, the show is must-see television. The impact of Jenner's transition to Caitlyn has been one of this year's huge, zeitgeist-y stories. It's impossible to avoid the coverage. It's trashy TV, but trash as the epitome of that place where lurid pop-culture obsession meets societal shift.
Certainly as far as broadcasters are concerned, I Am Cait is a very big deal. No advance screeners or secure online links were sent to the press. Screenings were organized in select cities. Listen, it gets us out of the house.
I left the theatre a bit stunned by the inanity of it, a bit amused by the grandiosity and the geeky but necessary sincerity of it all.
It begins in fine reality-TV fashion. It's 4:32 a.m. in Caitlyn's California mansion and she seems to be alone.
Except, of course, for the camera. "What a responsibility I have," she sighs. She means explaining her transition from male to female, on this series, with the support of close friends and her famous family members.
But, first, the fame part has to be celebrated. The series opens, inevitably, on the day Caitlyn's appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair is released. The biggest story in the world, for a while. And Caitlyn has just started on Twitter. Somebody on the phone tells Caitlyn that she might soon have more Twitter followers than President Barack Obama. Girly excitement ensues.
Caitlyn spends a lot of time sitting in a makeup chair, being constantly primped by an assistant. There is, however, an epiphany moment. "It's not like this way for everyone," she says. And then she talks about the suicide rate among transgender teenagers. And that, really, is the point of the series: explaining what transgender means, comforting those in need, reassuring those who fear it and gently confronting those who despise it.
The truly real moment – inasmuch as we can take any of it as authentic – arrives when Caitlyn talks to her mother, Esther. Mom is a little freaked out by all the cameras. In a quiet conversation with Caitlyn, she expresses vague hesitation about accepting a transgender person. She asks about something in the Bible. Caitlyn has a look of dread, and ominous music appears on the soundtrack. Right there is something inescapably palpable, no matter how it is dressed up in reality-TV clichés. There will be older people who struggle to accept transgender people.
There is a lot of silly business with the Kardashian clan.
Teenager Kylie arrives and smirks a lot, doing something to Caitlyn's hair. Kim arrives and joshes about what's in Caitlyn's closet. All the awfulness that is the Kardashian banality is there: the endless staring at smartphones, the preening, the focus on clothes and looks.
And yet there is a moment when Caitlyn claims that most of the Kardashians – her family from Bruce's marriage to Kris Kardashian – have not actually met her as Caitlyn. "They say, 'It's great, live your life.' But they won't come over." There's genuine pathos there.
There is also a scene in which Caitlyn admits to coming close to suicide. And there is an affecting visit by Caitlyn with the family of a transgender boy named Kyler, who committed suicide. The boy's dad looks horrified by the invasion of the reality-TV circus, but the mother speaks candidly about dealing with the death of her child.
It's all a bizarre concoction, mixing the genuine with the grotesquely staged and the banal.
The series Transparent (available on shomi) is a vastly superior illumination of transgender life and yet I Am Cait has a compelling, must-see quality, mainly because it's in a good cause and has some tiny pellets of pathos.