Adultery, abortion, threesomes, lesbians, transgenders, interracial hook-ups, Holocaust insensitivity — there’s something for everyone in Transparent, the fall’s most promising — and most empathetic — new drama.
Released in its entirety last Friday for Amazon Prime subscribers, Jill Soloway’s droll, warm, thoughtful series shrugs off taboos like musty old cardigans. As with the tirelessly clever Arrested Development, it stars Jeffrey Tambor as the patriarch of a screw-up Southern Californian clan.
Transparent, though, finds Tambor’s character, Maura, abdicating her male privilege for a chance to finally be herself. As the show’s title states, the parent Tambor plays is trans — or, as her eldest and most sympathetic child, Sarah (Amy Landecker), explains, “This is my father. And he’s a woman.”
The first few episodes find the retired Maura — quite possibly TV’s first trans protagonist — mustering the courage to finally reveal her true gender to her adult children: sexually frustrated stay-at-home mom Sarah, needy and too-cool-for-his-own-good Josh (Jay Duplass), and chronically unemployed (and possibly unemployable) genius Ali (Gaby Hoffman, cast after Soloway caught her on an episode of FX’s Louie). Maura may boast the Pfefferman family’s most radical identity, but at least hers is more or less stable. Her daughters and son, on the other hand, fling themselves at new and old lovers in the desperate hope of figuring out who they are and what they really want.
“Even when I was working on [HBO’s] Six Feet Under [2001-05], I was thinking, ‘One day I’m going to have my own show, and it’s going to be about a family and it’s going to be really Jew-y and really sexy,’ ” recalls Soloway. Transparent isn’t strictly autobiographical, but the character of Maura was inspired by the writer’s own parent, who came out as a trans woman in 2011.
The series offers a well-rounded look at the struggles facing one trans person’s life, among them housing, community, ageism, alcoholism, and, of course, family. Too few shows, even the rare ones featuring complex trans characters, take place within the context of the domestic circle and its “equalizing and normalizing environment.”
“I didn’t start out thinking that I wanted to write about a late transitioner,” says Soloway. “But that’s Maura’s story, so that’s the way it ended up being. I just wanted to tell my own personal family story.”
As daringly inclusive as Transparent is, though, the show has drawn criticism from some trans activists, largely around the casting of Tambor, a straight, cis man. Soloway is both apologetic and defensive on the issue. “I totally understand why the trans community is upset,” she quickly admits. “I cast Jeffrey because he always reminded me of my parent so much. I had a fair deal of naïveté in casting [him]. I really didn’t understand the tragic problem of the lack of trans representation. I just kind of assumed that all different kinds of people could play all different kinds of people.
“After all was said and done,” she continues, “my first response is that I wish that I had been able to find the trans person who could’ve played the role. But Jeffrey is so talented and so good in the role that I really believe that Jeffrey is right for the role of Maura. There isn’t one way to be trans; this isn’t the definitive trans story. It’s just one of many ways to be trans. A lot of late transitioners like my parent never go on hormones, never get surgery, and have a hard time having their gender read the way they wish it were read. So for me to cast a cis man who has yet to medically transition — potentially it could be the more effective choice.”
Soloway is also eager to point out that her “transfirmative action program” has led to the hiring of more trans people than on any other show in TV history, including 15 speaking roles and 100 extras. “We consider the show [to be part of] the civil rights movement,” she says earnestly.
But Transparent‘s place at the vanguard of mainstream pop culture’s explorations of gender and sexuality — alongside HBO’s Girls, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, and Starz’s Outlander — isn’t secured simply through its trans focus, but its multivalent “privileging of the other.”
That includes the Pfeffermans’ explicit Jewishness — another lens through which to explore the characters’ feelings of being on the outside looking in. “Trans people, I think, feel this way. And queer people,” muses Soloway. “Anyone who doesn’t naturally fit into what the dominant culture expects us to be like.” A patina of lighthearted Jewish self-deprecation coats the series like schmear on a Sunday-morning bagel, but the Transparent writing team isn’t afraid to go dark (or absurd) for a joke, either. When Josh proposes to his longtime girlfriend with a ring that he claims belonged to his grandmother who perished in the Holocaust, her immediate reaction is, “Ewww.”
Another “other” that benefits from Soloway’s love of the underdog is women. As with her feature-film directorial debut, Afternoon Delight, Transparent is keen to explore the “oppressive freedom” of housewifery, as well as the potential power of middle-aged and elderly female sexuality. (Judith Light, playing Maura’s no-nonsense ex-wife, Shelly, rounds out the very female cast.)
Although the show features plenty of younger characters, its hottest relationship, at least in the earlier episodes, is the romance between Sarah and her also-married-with-kids college girlfriend, Tammy (Melora Hardin), who begin their dalliance in the pilot. “She, like, made me squirt,” says Sarah to Ali in a failing (but hilarious) attempt to explain just how much in love she is with her ex.
That the sex scenes between two fortysomething women are among the show’s most sensual couplings is no coincidence. “I feel like it’s really my responsibility as a feminist and as a filmmaker to take the opportunity to place the camera in [terms of] how it feels to be a woman, instead of how women look,” says Soloway. “Women typically get seen through the hetero male gaze. [So] particularly when doing Ali’s sex scenes — and Sarah’s as well — I’m really trying to allow the audience to feel how it feels to be them.”
Soloway sees all of these gender and sexual struggles as related — and very much ongoing, including on her show. “We have genderqueer folk [via poet Ali Liebegott] represented in the writers’ room,” she says, “but I absolutely need to find a trans woman to hire to add to the room next year to help tell Maura’s story better.”
The progress that Transparent represents may be imperfect, but it’s also intrepid — and wittily, poignantly told. TV’s sexual (r)evolution continues to be televised — and is now available for streaming.