If there’s not cooking or Tim Gunn involved, I’m not much of one for reality TV, especially (though not exclusively) as practiced by TLC (which, I thought, used to stand for The Learning Channel but apparently now means Trashy Lifestyle Channel). The programming look very much like a race to be The Least Common Denominator (another TLC…D!) of cheap entertainment: Honey Boo-Boo. Duck Dynasty. Little Couples. I Am Cait. They seem like non-geographic versions of The Real Housewives — niche shows that hope, desperately, to grab eyeballs in a kind of freakshow of the airwaves: “Look, at these actual families of misfits behaving stupidly for your amusement!” They all seem to be touted with carnival-barker vulgarity.
And so I didn’t watch the first season of I Am Jazz. It appeared to be like all the others. But I took a look at the second season premiere, which starts Wednesday at 9 p.m. on TLC. One reason is that Jazz Jennings, the focus of the show, seems so prepossessed: Now 15, she’s written a book about being a transgender teen (one taught in schools, which is a plotline on the opening episode), been heralded for her openness by Time and Out magazines and was a pioneer in getting the right to use the girls’ bathroom. She’s a millennial role model, and conveys something all too rare in reality TV: Personal dignity.
Jazz and her supportive family have had some time getting used to it. She came out as trans at age 6, and everyone seems comfortable with the feminine pronoun… except some haters, who truly don’t understand (or want to understand) trans issues. She’s not brave in the overused sense that pop culture has diminished — she’s rather just a normal teen living through unusual circumstances with as much grace as any teen could be expected to show. You like Jazz — and her mom and dad and siblings, who are all equally “normal” — and so the pitfalls she endures resonate more. They don’t seem faked, because we all know how difficult being an “other” teen is, at any time. (It seems especially relevant during the current political climate. I wonder if the North Carolina legislature will allow it to air there?)
So I may make an exception to my reality TV rules. I might watch I Am Jazz, as much to support the next generation of leaders as to see what happens next in her life. And keep hope alive that quality may actually make a difference.