By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Almost immediately upon its release “Transparent” was heralded as the best new TV show of the season, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a hypnotic, sophisticated portrait of a family that feels like a great novel, engrossing the viewer, while avoiding any of the increasingly played out tropes of the “Difficult Men,” Golden Era of TV-style classics.
The show is noteworthy for being the first to feature a transgender protagonist, Maura, a retired professor and parent of three children. While it handles this aspect of its story honestly and sensitively, though, the trans aspect does not dominate the show. Instead it’s interested in the invisible dynamics that tether family members to one another, and the way secrets and betrayals ripple, inpattern-like ways from parent to child and sibling to sibling.
The show rarely barrels forward; instead its characters drift, startlingly, in and out of relationships, jobs and residences. The audience cares about them, but even late into the season can feel shocked at seeing Maura, or one of her children react unexpectedly to a comment or situation, and feel that they are mysteries to us and to themselves. In this way it’s fascinating, almost myth-like story telling.
We meet Maura (expertly played by Jeffery Tambor), just as she’s coming out to her children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffman). All live somewhat dubiously wealthy lives, given their purported professions (or lack thereof). All, similarly, live fascinatingly unexamined existences. The children’s romantic and professional pursuits are in constant upheaval or turmoil. Sarah, a mother of two, leaves her husband for her former college girlfriend. Josh, a compulsive romantic, sabotages his record company career in response to a dalliance with an artist, and Ali careens through partners and gender expressions, seemingly in a hyper-sensitive response to Maura’s decision and her own fatalistic confusion about her prospects and identity.
After coming out, Maura moves from a ritzy home in the toney Pacific Palisades to an LGBTQ-friendly apartment building in West Hollywood. It’s one of many subtle ways the show explores how her trans identity affects her life. We see her experience discrimination in a women’s restroom, and receive harassment from old friends and family members. While these scenes are painful, though, Maura is never a martyr. Her sense of reserve, the lack of verbal intimacy she shares with those around her, and the show’s aversion to melodrama all combine to make transphobia and its wounding power part of the fabric of the storytelling, as opposed to its message.
“Transparent” flashes back frequently to 1994, a time when Maura seems first to have explored her gender identity. Early on, this appears merely to be adding context. It soon starts building to one particular weekend, though, which spans the entire eighth episode (the season consists of ten), which is fascinating for all the ways it refracts the themes of betrayal, autonomy, and familial love the show explores. “Transparent” never seems to judge its characters, or generate sympathy for them. Instead it seems as curious as they are, treating their lives and world as a kind of laboratory for understanding love, sex, compulsion, manipulation, jealousy, and whatever other emotions and activities result from relationships.
The main criticisms of the show thus far, which I made myself when reviewing the pilot, deal with its unrealistic portrayal of finances, and the selfishness displayed by Maura’s children. For me, the money issues faded away upon accepting that the characters all received about four times as much as their real life counterparts might for the jobs they did. What was more interesting to me, was the way money affected Maura’s transition. At the mall with her daughters, Maura is affirmed at the makeup counter, where she buys whatever is suggested, and harassed moments later in the women’s room, illustrating the old adage that people like trans women as we’re paying them to. Money serves as a glue between Maura and her children, as well. While they mock her behind her back, questioning her sanity and expressing embarrassment, they put on a more accepting face when visiting, either vying for the house she’s vacated, or asking for loans, manipulating and being manipulated by their wealthy parent, in a kind of ongoing, mutual parasitism.
The selfishness, too, stopped bothering me. Rather than appearing unfeeling, Maura’s children, as the show proceeds, seem helplessly, compulsively single-minded. Judging them, in such light, feels not only unkind, but fruitless. Instead I wanted to understand them, as their drives seemed so mysteriously, fundamentally human. Episode eight, in which we watch a younger, more virile Maura display the exact kind of heedless, primal appetites, to the detriment of her children and wife, adds fascinating context to the dynamic.
Finishing season one of “Transparent,” I only wanted more. Some shows, like “Homeland” disappoint with their inconsistencies, but others, like “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under,” which “Transparent” creator Jill Solloway wrote for, sustain their high quality year after year. I’d love dozens more hours of with these characters, if they were like the ones we’ve gotten so far.