As I Am Cait premieres Sunday night on E!, no one is feeling the pressure more than the show's star, Caitlyn Jenner. The eight-hour docuseries follows Caitlyn—formerly Bruce Jenner—as she embarks on her new journey, but the consequences of her very public transition from male to female are also keeping her up at night.
"What a responsibility I have toward this community," Jenner says in the premiere's opening moments, finding herself wide awake with nerves at 4:30 a.m. "I just hope I get it right."
Judging by I Am Cait's moving first episode, she's done just that. The show's poignant premiere is the latest in a long line of masterful strokes Jenner has executed during her transition. First there was her April interview with Diane Sawyer, which drew 17 million viewers and marked her last public appearance as Bruce Jenner. On June 1, she made her debut as Caitlyn on Vanity Fair's cover and later that day broke President Obama's Twitter-follower record. Then, last week, she gave an emotional speech at the ESPY Awards where she received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
But I Am Cait is Jenner's most impressive achievement yet this year. After all, it is produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, which is also behind Jenner's former show Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a series not known for its artful handling of delicate issues. The same goes for E!, the network home of the Kardashian shows and programs like Total Divas and Rich Kids of Beverly Hills.
That producer-network pedigree had led to major concerns about the tone of I Am Cait. Would it be educational and moving—like Jenner's Diane Sawyer, Vanity Fair and ESPY appearances—or would it be contrived, pseudo reality, like, oh, almost everything else on E!? As Kim Kardashian tells Jenner during the show, "All eyes on you now. You cannot disappoint."
And Jenner doesn't. While it could easily have ended up being more Keeping Up With Caitlyn, I Am Cait is instead a rare breed: a reality show that is equally as concerned with educating audiences as it is with entertaining them. Early on, Jenner talks about wanting to use her public transition—and the show—as a platform to raise awareness about the transgender community and the struggles it faces. On many programs, that ends up as mere lip service (how many reality stars have professed lofty goals early on, before succumbing to the usual hijinks?), but Jenner pulls it off from the outset.
The premiere is largely focused on the first time Jenner's mother, Esther, along with sisters Lisa and Pam, meet Caitlyn. It's packed with poignancy, as Esther sorts through a sea of conflicting emotions. She wants to support her daughter, but that's easier said than done after spending 65 years with her son Bruce.
Later, Jenner travels to San Diego to visit the mother of Kyler Prescott, a transgender teen who committed suicide in May—the third San Diego-area transgender teen to do so since March. At first, the meeting seems invasive, much like all those Real Housewives therapy sessions that are more concerned with making great TV than actually helping people address problems. But it quickly becomes apparent that Jenner and Prescott desperately want to shine a spotlight on this issue and prevent anyone else from following Kyler's tragic path.
This isn't a side of Jenner we've been exposed to before, and I'm not referring to her transition. But Keeping Up With the Kardashians rarely showed Jenner in such an empathetic light, instead portraying him as the exasperated foil to whatever the family was up to that particular week. Finally given her moment to shine, though, Jenner is making the most of it and should be proud of what she's done here.
There are lighter moments, too, like when Caitlyn plays tennis with her sister ("Now I know why girls need a sports bra!") and shows off her new wardrobe to Kim, who notes that Kris Jenner (Jenner's ex and Kim's mom) has the same dress. And, yes, there are also inevitable cameos from several members of the Kardashian clan.
The best thing that can be said about I Am Cait is that it feels real, which, ironically, is not something that often applies to reality shows. Every few minutes, Jenner struggles with an actual issue related to her transition, not just something trumped up for reality cameras. What name does she use to sign her mom's birthday card? What happens when she is FaceTimed by one of her kids who hasn't met Caitlyn yet? Why is it easier to come out to her female friends than her male friends? These are issues transgender individuals confront on a daily basis, yet most I Am Cait viewers will never have contemplated them before.
That's not to say there isn't cause for concern that the show could eventually backslide into more familiar Kardashian territory. Clips from upcoming episodes show Jenner going on a road trip, roller skating and planning slumber parties, and Kim telling her that she is "bashing" the Kardashian family—in other words, all the elements that make up a typical Kardashian reality show and what many feared I Am Cait would be from the start.
But there are also scenes with Jenner visiting trans organizations and continuing to pursue her stated goal of raising awareness of the struggles faced by the transgender community.
"I have to figure out my own journey," says Jenner. So far, she's going in the right direction.