I Am Cait's second season gets down to the complicated business of advocacy

Caitlyn Jenner's reality show has high stakes and an occasionally frustrating protagonist

The first episode of I Am Cait’s upcoming second season might contain more drama and meaningful dialogue than the entirety of its first batch of episodes. That’s less a slam against the first season than an observation: E!’s smallest, most unconventional reality show had to spend the bulk of its first eight episodes setting the table for Caitlyn Jenner’s journey, work that started when she held an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC in April 2015. Jenner is the most prominent transgender American by an order of magnitude, and as such, her transition has occasionally felt like it’s moving at an almost bureaucratic pace.

She walked Sawyer through every emotional beat and bit of terminology for the benefit of millions of uninformed viewers, and when I Am Cait premiered last summer, it saw her doing much the same: there were family members to meet and suss out, friends to make, concepts to introduce. It’s an important, considered process. And by contrast, it’s thrilling to watch this season take off like the tricked-out bus Jenner and her trans friends and mentors are riding across the country. Getting into the weeds of her transition is going to make for scintillating television.

This season is largely built around that road trip, which starts in Los Angeles and ends up around the Grand Canyon by the end of the first episode. This means a good chunk of each episode takes place in the seats of a touring coach, a choice that’s fascinating in terms of both TV production and Jenner’s development as a person and activist. It sounds like fodder for a season’s worth of reality TV bottle episodes — is there a better stage for shit getting real than a narrow tour bus hurtling through the heartland? It’s an adventure for Jenner, but it’s also a sort of prison. Her friends repeatedly allude to the fact that Jenner won't be able to evade their questions in such close quarters — questions about her sexuality, her family, and especially her politics. They plan on turning it into a crucible, a space within which they can mold her into the best representative possible.

Jenner is just starting to understand the realities and responsibilities of her role

That’s important, because there are real stakes to everything that happens within I Am Cait. In that respect, it couldn’t be more different from Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the show Jenner haunted before transitioning; a show in a class of its own when it comes to meandering through trivial plotlines. Jenner has the visibility and the force of personality to meaningfully change the lives of transgender people, and yet you’re continually reminded that she’s just starting to understand the realities and responsibilities that accompany her role.

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This creates a fascinating dynamic within I Am Cait: you don’t root as hard for the woman that bears the show’s name as you do for the women who are mentoring her. The show’s second season understands how strange and interesting this is, and it doubles down on it. The academic and writer Jenny Boylan — tough, smart, and unapologetically radical — becomes the show’s brain; the actress and artist Candis Cayne, perhaps Jenner’s closest friend among the women on the bus, becomes its heart; Jenner is their promising, frequently hard-to-handle protégé. Boylan has already written about this season with her typical eloquence and clarity:

There were times when I thought that, even though [Jenner] and I are both trans, we couldn’t have less in common with each other. I found her an exhausting and infuriating companion at times, a Republican glamorpuss with a head like a rock. And yet, for all that: I have a tremendous affection for her as well. I consider her my friend. I admire the way she decided to use her transition — and the strange fame of her family — to create visibility, and to try to make things better for our community.

Watching Jenner get grilled about her sexual orientation and political beliefs in the season premiere is harrowing, because the frustration and the energy in the room are real and palpable. These are deep, personal topics, and Jenner’s opinions have calcified in spots the way anyone’s opinions would; you can imagine the way you would feel if a half-dozen friends cornered and interrogated you, no matter the justification. But Jenner has given her consent, and it’s not like the conversations taking place on I Am Cait are being staged for show. They’re necessary given the role as an advocate she’s willingly adopted.

It remains to be seen whether or not the protestations and guidance of Jenner’s friends and peers have had any effect on her. A teaser trailer for the season reveals that Jenner eventually meets Hillary Clinton, a predictable development after she claims that Clinton "could care less about women" in the first episode. She’s also on the record wanting to serve as Ted Cruz’s "trans ambassador," an unlikely scenario given Cruz’s beliefs. Put it this way: Jenner’s efficacy as an activist is definitely still up for debate, but it doesn’t have much of an impact on I Am Cait’s value as a piece of television. Its characters are rich, its conflicts are gripping, and its stakes couldn’t get much higher. Jenner’s destination is uncertain, but the journey is worth taking.

I Am Cait's second season premieres Sunday, March 6 on E!