'Becoming Us': Transgender Parents, Conflicted Kids

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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The new ABC Family show Becoming Us is a docu-series about 16-year-old Ben Lehwald and how he adjusts to a new reality: that his father is transitioning as a woman. “Carly was my dad, Charlie,” as Ben puts it. Ben’s friend Danielle Molnar also has a transitioning father, Daniel. These situations bring Ben and Danielle together, but it doesn’t make their lives any less challenging, and the strength of Becoming Us is that it allows almost everyone to have her or his say.

This 10-episode series (produced by Ryan Seacrest) is on one level a typical reality show and typical of ABC Family programming, in that it can often be trite and repetitive. But triteness and repetition characterizes a lot of everyday life, and the debut does an excellent job of giving us a portrait of Ben as a Midwestern teenager whose natural adolescent self-consiousness has been increased to near-paralysis as he comes to terms with his father’s new life.

Ben is a recognizable teen: often monosyllabic and moody. But Ben is also friendly and affectionate with his father — as much as any teenager, who’s also in the process of dealing with his own identity — is friendly and affectionate with any parent. As Ben says, however, “It’s doesn’t mean I understand what she’s doing.” Indeed, in many ways, Carly is the person most comfortable on-camera here. Chatty and cheerful, Carly is clearly invigorated by the changes she’s making in her life. For Carly’s ex-wife, Suzy, the situation is different. The couple’s marital past is only glancingly addressed; it’s clear that there are feelings of betrayal, and Carly tells the camera, “I wish I had been a lot more transparent.” You definitely get the feeling Suzy is suppressing a lot of thoughts and emotions for the camera, lest she say the “wrong” thing about Carly.

Danielle’s father is at a different emotional stage in his gender identity. Danielle says “My dad still goes by ‘he,’” and her father says to the filmmakers, “I wouldn’t wish a gender conflict on anybody; it’s a nightmare.” There’s also a strong subplot involving Ben’s older sister, Sutton, recently engaged and visiting home to plan for her wedding. She’s very ambivalent about Carly, mostly because, she says, she wants her wedding “to be about me, not Carly.”

There are staged scenes that would make any teenager, no matter what parent he or she was with, uncomfortable, which is why the segment in which Ben and Carly take Danielle’s father bra-shopping seems awkwardly forced. By the end of the hour, Carly has told Ben he’s going to have surgery: “My boy parts are gonna become my girl parts.” She asks her son how that makes him feel. “Even more pissed,” the boy says. “Because it’s official that my dad is gone. The person that made me will not have the thing that made me.”

Arriving soon after the media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner, Becoming Us might seem like it’s riding a trend. But it’s very much its own show, and very interestingly complicated.

Becoming Us airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.