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TELEVISION REVIEW

A smart look at an alternative campus lifestyle

Thank God for college. Where else do you have time for self-examination, distance from your parents and your past, and license to decide who you really are?

Especially when who you are, it turns out, is someone of the opposite gender?

This is campus life for the transgendered students featured in ''Transgeneration," a revolutionary documentary series that premieres tonight on the Sundance Channel. What's radical here isn't the topic so much as the way it's handled -- with maturity and respect -- at a time when every personal issue seems fodder for a leering TV treatment.

''Transgeneration" is provocative, yes, but only in the sense that it's straightforward, unflinching, and, in the end, wholly unsensational. It cuts through stereotypes and -- without being preachy -- helps us understand a subject that gets scant treatment in the skittish mainstream. (Maybe we should be thankful for that; you can imagine how MTV might have handled the topic, with odd camera angles and a soundtrack by Marilyn Manson.)

The Sundance series works, in large part, because the characters are so well-chosen and complex. T.J., who grew up a girl in Cyprus, is living as a man at Michigan State University, throwing himself into the collegiate mash of identity politics and left-wing activism. The first episode features a sequence straight from ''Rushmore:" We see him taking part in a string of campus clubs and, finally, starring as George W. Bush in an anti-capitalist play.

Lucas, a Smith College student who's becoming a man, is rebelling against his own campus activism. Once the cochair of ''Tangent," the campus transgender club, he's tired of letting gender issues define him. ''I'm much happier," he says, ''just being male."

Raci, a male-to-female transsexual from the Philippines, is a scholarship student at California State University-Los Angeles; she's poor, hearing-impaired, and so desperate for a healthy social life that she tries to hide her transgender status. ''Oh, it's a documentary about women in college," she says when people ask about the camera crew following her. In an acting class, she struggles with her guilt over a love scene; her partner has no clue he's embracing someone who's technically a man.

And Gabbie, a University of Colorado at Boulder student who is readying for surgery to become a woman, is honest, socially awkward, and painfully vulnerable. When she tells one male classmate, matter-of-factly, that she's being filmed ''for a documentary on transsexual students in college," the camera lingers on his small, tight smile.

''Transgeneration" is full of moments like this; it's frank about hormone treatments and medical issues and sexuality, but also about interpersonal relations, sex, and the things college student really talk about. It might be billed as a primer in transgender issues, but what it beautifully captures is college life, with all of its solipsism and confusion.

''It's about just being young," Lucas said by phone from Oklahoma, where he is living now, another college graduate looking for a job and starting a life.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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