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I Am Cait Proves Caitlyn Jenner Is the Kardashian Family’s Most Compelling Star Yet

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The premiere episode of I Am Cait, on E!, represented both the most-anticipated reality-TV premiere in years, and the one that was anticipated with the largest aggregate of good feelings. Even defenders of the reality genre will admit that most reality series get their thrills from the unflattering angle, whether that angle depicts a newcomer voted off early or an established star exposing a whole new banal tragedy. But the Caitlyn Jenner story—that of the former Olympian and Keeping Up With the Kardashians star who announced earlier this year she had long identified as a woman—was depicted with an abundance of good taste by E! The show made its mark, in its premiere episode, with its willingness to risk boring the viewer.

Indeed, Caitlyn Jenner’s life seemed accurately depicted, with minimal flash—which is to say, tedious. Celebrities, particularly those who’ve publicly gone through a transition, don’t have it easy, but the ways in which their lives are hard aren’t particularly intriguing. A sequence in which Jenner is pursued by various paparazzi on the way to pay a charitable visit to the family of a trans teen suicide victim would, on a series that weren’t compelled to have so much on its mind, be cut together as a fun, exhilarating high-speed chase. Here, it’s a belabored journey, traversing various traffic-choked streets as we slowly realize just how high the bounty on photos of Jenner is, and what it means for her to be able to define how she’s seen in public in a world where the trans experience is still so challenging.

That extends to those around her. Jenner’s family members who visit her in the debut episode behave in a remarkably unremarkable manner. Her mother quickly overcomes qualms (despite forgivably failing to overcome pronoun confusion) and acts as a no-drama support system. Jenner’s sisters compliment her looks in a way that feels both deeply felt and not freighted with anything but love. A visit from Kanye West and Kim Kardashian provides a new angle, perhaps, on the pair (West ends up discussing his outré sneakers with Jenner’s less fashion-forward immediate family, while Kardashian combs through Jenner’s closet), but they, too, have little to offer but support.

The first episode of I Am Cait felt both like a well-earned victory lap and a move into a second phase. Jenner’s first three major pieces of media in the year 2015—her interview with Diane Sawyer in which she announced her transition, her print debut in the pages of Vanity Fair and her on-camera debut accepting an award at the ESPYs—were all done pitch-perfectly, acknowledging Jenner’s own growing-up process while continuously shedding light on trans people with far less privilege, asking the viewer to care about them, too.

See The Life of Caitlyn Jenner

1976 Olympic Games. Montreal, Canada. Men's Decathlon. USA's gold medal winner Bruce Jenner.
At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon, setting the world record at 8,616 points.Getty Images
Bruce Jenner celebrates during his record setting performance in the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
Jenner became a national hero following his Olympic win and was later inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986.Tony Duffy—Getty Images
NBC Sportscaster - Bruce Jenner
Jenner became an NBC Sportscaster in the late 1970s following his Olympic performance in Montreal.NBC/Getty Images
Bruce Jenner and Linda Thompson
Jenner married actress Linda Thompson, above, on Jan. 5, 1981, following his divorce with Chrystie Crownover.Getty Images
Nancy Reagan With Celebrities
Jenner was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. In October of 1985, he received the Outstanding Learning Disabled Achiever Award from then-First Lady Nancy Reagan alongside stars such as Cher and Tom Cruise.Getty Images
Bruce Jenner
Jenner was a successful race car driver in the 1980s, though in a 2013 interview he said, "I was a lot more badass runner than I was a driver.”Ann Clifford—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Bruce And Kris
In 1991, Jenner married Kris Jenner, previously Kris Kardashian, just one month after she finalized her divorce from Robert Kardashian. The two had dated for only five months.Maureen Donaldson—Getty Images
Kardashian Jenner Family Portrait
Their marriage merged two already large families, evident here in this 1991 portrait.Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Bruce Jenner
After his sports career, Jenner, seen here at a celebrity golf event in 1993, had a number of small acting jobs and television appearances.Stephen Dunn—Getty Images
"Cinderella" Release on Video
The family poses at an event in 1995, the year Jenner and Kris welcomed the first of their two children together, Kendall Jenner.Ron Galella—WireImage
Former US gold medal decathlete Bruce Jenner (C),
Kylie Jenner was born two years later in 1997. The girls can be seen here on the red carpet in 2000, long before they covered magazines and appeared on TIME's Most Influential Teens list.Scott Nelson—AFP/Getty Images
E! Entertainment Television's 2005 Summer Splash Event - Arrivals
Jenner, seen here in 2005, would re-enter the spotlight thanks to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which first premiered in 2007.Steve Granitz—WireImage
Bruce Jenner
Jenner spoofed his reality-star fame with a commercial for Tropicana Juicy Rewards in 2010.AP
The Tonight Show With Jay Leno
Jenner and Kris, here at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2011, announced their separation in 2013. She filed for divorce the following year.Kevin Winter—Getty Images
Bruce Jenner On "Extra"
Jenner poses with a box of Wheaties in 2012. He appeared on the front of the box first in 1977 after his Olympic gold-medal win, then in 2012 when Wheaties rolled out a retro series.Noel Vasquez—Getty Images
Brandon And Leah Album Release Party For "Cronies"
Jenner appears with two of his sons, TV personality Brody Jenner and musician Brandon Jenner, who records with his wife as Brandon & Leah, at an April 2013 release party.Chelsea Lauren—WireImage
Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - October 20, 2014
Jenner walks with step-daughter Kim Kardashian in October of 2014 — about five months after rapper Kanye West became his son-in-law.Bauer-Griffin—GC Images
Bruce Jenner Vanity Fair Caitlyn transgender
Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, appeared as a woman for the first time on the cover of Vanity Fair's June 2015 issue, photographed by Annie Leibovitz.Annie Leibovitz—Vanity Fair
The 2Caitlyn Jenner 2015 Espys Arther Ashe Award015 ESPYS - Show
Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award onstage during The 2015 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 15, 2015 in Los Angeles.Kevin Winter—Getty Images

But for as enlightening as that talk was, it was talk; the rubber is hitting the road, now. Jenner’s recent life experience is defined by unconditional love and ease. It’s a life, despite internal conflict, buoyed by both the money to purchase a whole new wardrobe at a moment’s notice and the wide-ranging family support to make that wardrobe seem like a good investment. The show doesn’t try to make drama out of Jenner’s own experience, because there’s none there. It doesn’t try, either, to make a story out of the plight of the family of a dead trans teen whom Jenner visits; they’re quietly mournful, pleased to see Jenner, and it ends there. The tone of the series is one of pleasant acceptance with only the lowest of speed bumps, because that’s what Jenner has been faced with so far as far as the public gaze has been concerned. We hear about self-doubt and recrimination, but only a lesser show would ever depict it.

But for all its unwillingness to indulge whatever is dark in Jenner’s life, the show has an apparent willingness, at least in its first episode, to place Jenner’s ease of life in contrast to that of a family who accepted their son but lost him anyway. That choice reveals something subversive and uncomfortable roiling under the surface. We’ve seen Jenner on ABC News as the possessor of a remarkable personal history, in Vanity Fair as a fashion plate, and on the ESPYs as an eloquent speaker. Connecting the dots, I Am Cait does more than any of those. It shows us the birth of a consciousness. It might end up becoming the defining reality show of a generation.

Read next: 7 Must-See Moments From the I Am Cait Series Premiere

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