Hit TV shows are rare. “I Am Cait” is a unicorn.
A reality series that delivered mediocre ratings in the wake of a much-watched premiere, it’s cultural effect extends beyond it audience. The show has been praised by LGBTQ advocates for its portrayal of Caitlyn Jenner’s life as she navigates gender transition, and credited alongside Amazon’s “Transparent” and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” for contributing to wider media acceptance of transgender people.
What remains to be seen is whether “I Am Cait’s” contradictory success–a hit show with non-hit ratings–will have any effect on the reality TV landscape.
“I think that it signals the rise of more prestige offerings in the reality genre,” Rajiv Menon, cultural analyst at brand-strategy firm TruthCo, told TheWrap. “We’ve been talking about this more broadly in TV with drama and comedy and the golden age of TV that we’re in right now.” Reality, however, has been largely left out of that conversation. “I think ‘I Am Cait,’ though not necessarily a ratings success, shows what an actual premium offering within the genre could potentially do.”
What “I Am Cait” did, in part, was lend its network prestige. For the last eight years, E!’s biggest star has been Caitlyn’s former stepdaughter Kim Kardashian–a TV character who, while very famous, doesn’t exactly have the same hood-ornament qualities that a Don Draper or Carrie Matheson has.
In contrast, the socially conscious subject matter and approach of “I Am Cait” make it an ambitious effort. E! put a series on its schedule that asked viewers on middle America and across the country to invite a transgender person into their homes–a programming gambit that carries risk but earned the network accolades.
In turn, other networks may now look to reality programming to increase their own cultural cache.
“I think there are a lot of really good examples of prestige reality right now,” Menon said, pointing to offerings such as Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” which explores the creative lives of great chefs. HBO on Sunday night will premiere its revival of “Project Greenlight,” the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon-produced series about filmmaking that last aired a decade ago on Bravo, when that was still an arts channel.
What “Project Greenlight” brings to the table that “I Am Cait” did not, however, was a considerable entertainment factor, thanks in part to the star power of Affleck and Damon. “I Am Cait” was often too focused on educating viewers and not enough on the big personalities that made other “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and its offshoots fun to watch. It could at times feel like eating one’s reality-TV vegetables. And with the Season 1 finale scheduled for Sunday night and no renewal order yet from E!, a second season looks unlikely.
That, however, will not necessarily keep it from influencing future decisions by reality programmers.
“What’s really exciting about ‘I Am Cait’ is that even though it wasn’t a strong ratings success, it showed an opportunity for wider experimentation, which is really key to the rise of the prestige genre,” Menon says. “So if it does end up being a one-and-done series or a limited series, I don’t think E! should consider that a failure.”