"I don't think I have ever been as excited about life as I am right now ... I'm hoping to make a difference in the world."
And with those words, Caitlyn Jenner arrives, Sunday on E! at 8 p.m., in what is surely the most anticipated series in the network's history -- possibly among the most anticipated docuseries in cable history.
The first episode of "I Am Cait," screened to critics Tuesday night in Manhattan, quickly and emphatically settled at least one outstanding question, or entirely reasonable concern: Would this be yet another spinoff of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians"? The answer: not even remotely.
What viewers will instead see Sunday is something entirely new -- also bracing, emotional and even touching. At least in the first episode, Jenner keeps her promise. She very well could make a difference, and an important one.
The premiere, filmed this past spring from Jenner's Malibu home high above a surging Pacific, also introduces someone most people have never even met before. Dressed in pink, or (in another scene) white pantsuit, her hair in long tresses, her nails flaming red, the Cait viewers see here is not Bruce, or no longer. His 89-year-old mother, Esther Jenner, arrives. That specific reality begins to settle in for her as well.
Many people come and go during this opening episode as Jenner, 65, essentially reintroduces to them a new person they already once thought they knew -- famous people, too, including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and his daughters, Kylie and Kendall. (Jenner's children from her first two marriages have refused to participate -- possibly fearing another Kardashian circus.)
But it is Esther Jenner, almost as much as her new daughter, who commands the opener: "I thought I could never be more proud of him," she says, referring to Jenner's gold medal victory at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. "I was wrong. I am more proud of him for the courage he has shown" here.
Naturally, there are questions for viewers. Naturally, there pretty much have to be. After all, this is on E!, not Logo. And, going in, you might suspect (or fear) that the invisible hand of the Kardashian Godzilla brand hovers over this new show, ready to turn it into another spigot for the money machine -- unless it already has.
Then, there is what might be called the cognitive dissonance. Buzz Bissinger, in the July Vanity Fair cover story that essentially sets the whole stage for "I Am Cait," put that dissonance this way: "I spent hundreds of hours with the man over a period of three months. Then I spent countless hours with the woman. It was initially weird, and virtually anyone who says it isn't weird is giving themselves far too much credit."
It's also abundantly clear from the outset that both the subject and producers -- Bunim/Murray and "KUWTK" producer Ryan Seacrest -- know they have to address these questions, this dissonance, and then push the show into a place they've never really gone before. Considering all the antecedents here, or baggage -- notably the Kardashian one -- that feels initially weird, too. These are a lot of balls in the air. How to juggle them ...
Sunday opens with a tight head shot of Caitlyn -- an instant portrait of fatigue and worry and dissonance. Her hair is tousled, makeup just beginning to be applied by a friend and consort, Courtney. You can see every pore, her lips swollen, and each sharp detail in the surgically remodeled nose. Her neck is long and smooth, the adam's apple long ago removed by a tracheal shave. There is no evidence of a beard.
She speaks. The voice is familiar, but the face is not. And suddenly you realize -- Bruce Jenner is gone for good. It's the shock of THAT recognition that propels this forward. You are IN at that point. But in for what, exactly ...
"It's like four in the morning and I can't sleep," she says, the mascara brush dusting her cheeks. And then, straight to the point -- the outstanding question answered, the reason for doing this at all: "I feel bad all these young people are going through such a difficult time ... Am I going to say the right things, project the right images. My mind is spinning with thoughts. I hope I get it right."
Those young people are in the thousands, she says -- many thousands. There are teens right now struggling with gender identity, and some struggling with thoughts of suicide. The show was taped around the time Kyler Prescott, a 14-year-old transgender boy in San Diego, committed suicide in May. He's not mentioned, initially, but the premiere ends with Jenner's visit to his family -- a cloak-and-dagger car-switching trek south to avoid the paps and, she says, to avoid any additional anguish to the family.
"Family" is key here throughout -- the premise being how will Jenner break the news to the closest people in her orbit. Of course, they already know she has transitioned. But what Sunday's opener insists upon is that they really don't know any more than the average viewer. This is terra nova for everyone.
The four Jenner children from his first two marriages -- Cassandra, Burt, Brandon and Brody Jenner -- refused to participate in this eight-part series, and their absence here is gaping. They are mentioned briefly, never by name.
Bissinger got into this, too: "They worry that the whole narrative will devolve into spectacle and shenanigans intercut with a little dash of social cause and the use of paid consultants [including Jenny Boylan] who are experts on transgender issues as a cover for social responsibility."
Sunday wants to resolve that, and does, almost immediately. Esther is the powerful antidote -- the dose of reality and grounding who confers the maternal benediction. On the ride from the airport to the house where she will see her new daughter for the first time, Esther gets her close-up, too. She is immaculately dressed, her daughter Pam by her side. She is also elderly and frail -- her eyes sharp, but also slightly out of focus. Reading them, you see someone bracing herself for a shock.
"I never guessed you had a problem," she tells Caitlyn. Then, later to a producer: "I guess I've been preparing myself. I think he's a very good-looking woman. [But] he's still Bruce."
A few minutes later, the real shock arrives -- she looks at Cait, with her long tresses, and makeup, realizing that Bruce is truly gone. It's an emotional wallop and shock-of-the-new. Her son is gone. Just like that. Her eyes water. She struggles for composure. "I Am Cait," in that moment, will bond itself to all the doubters and maybe even haters: A mom has lost a son, but gained a daughter. How. How exactly IS someone supposed to feel ..
Of the Kardashians, they do indeed hover. Cait Jenner -- long divorced from Kris -- wonders aloud why she hasn't heard from any of them, whether the silence is an indication of their disapproval. Then the doorbell rings. More guests! Kanye and Kim have arrived.
Kanye seems awkward, almost sweet -- none of that Kanye-storming-the-stage-at-the-VMAs bravado here. The camera checks out his feet -- he's wearing a pair of brilliantly white sneakers with untied laces. Those laces are mere sartorial flourishes, he explains to Esther and Pam. They are fascinated and also amused. Kim wanders into Cait's closet. Out of the thousands of outfits -- Jenner, clearly like her ex-wife, an unregenerate shopper -- she instantly picks out one offending dress.
This must GO, she demands.
And then -- just like that -- the famous Ks are gone. They don't overstay their welcome. That's a relief, too.
Sunday's opener is busy and packed -- a show demanding respect and demanding that you approach it on its own terms. The motives here are pure (it insists), the heart in the right place. It veers, sometimes swerves, between a public service tone and made-for-primetime spectacle. That can be disorienting, too.
But, for the moment, all viewers can do is take "I Am Cait" at its word, or the words of its star: "What I want to do is create an understanding so that the next person doesn't have to be like me," says Jenner, "or have to talk about suicide as a permanent solution for a temporary problem. I know how these kids can feel. I've had some very dark moments in my life. I have been in my house with a gun and [the thought], 'let's just end it right here...' "
The stakes, in other words, couldn't be much higher. "I Am Cait" now has no choice BUT to get this right.