TV Binge Report: Transparent

From the first moments of the pilot it was clear that Transparent, Amazon’s new original dramedy series about a father (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out to his adult children as transgender, was a good show. For me, episode 7 (“Symbolic Exemplar”) was when I realized it was a GREAT show. There is a scene where Mort/Maura Pfefferman, the titular character, is performing Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” in a talent show with a fellow trans woman while her 3 adult children sit in the audience…until they leave, one by one, for various selfish reasons. I do not wish to at all downplay the quality of the first six episodes, but this scene is when I felt the show finally nailed its tone and delivered what was to me the biggest emotional gut punch of the season. The song choice was clearly very deliberate, as Maura is quite literally not the person her children used to know, and a beautiful instrumental version continued to play over the final montage of the episode, as each character dealt with the fallout. This scene specifically has been on my mind since watching the series a couple of weeks ago. I actually found myself yelling at my computer screen, physically angry that these awful kids would abandon their parent in such a vulnerable moment.

Jill Soloway, the creator and showrunner of Transparent, previously served as a writer and producer on Six Feet Under, which is in my top 3 favorite shows of all time. You can definitely see the similarities between the two shows, specifically in the occasionally surreal tone and the absurd yet relatable characters and situations. The main family on each show even features three highly dysfunctional children. I have often bemoaned that nothing that has been on television since can be compared to Six Feet Under, and despite the very different premise this show has somehow come the closest, no doubt because of its pedigree.

Structurally, the story is told both in present day and in flashbacks to 1994, which was a very formative year for both Mort and his children. In an interesting storytelling choice, episode 8 (“Best New Girl”), another personal favorite of mine, takes place exclusively in 1994. In this episode, Mort and his friend Mark/Marcy (Bradley Whitford) attend a cross-dressing retreat in the woods. During the course of the weekend, Maura becomes deeply saddened when she realizes many of the other attendees see themselves as merely cross-dressers and talk in scandalized tones about a former member of their community who was essentially banished when she chose to start taking hormones. Maura realizes she is different from Mark and the others who simply enjoy occasionally dressing in women’s clothes because she truly identifies as a woman. In the one place where she thought she would feel the most accepted, she ends up feeling more isolated than ever.

Jeffrey Tambor’s performance is simply incredible, and I predict he will win many well-deserved awards. The supporting cast is also fantastic. Maura’s three children, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Josh (Jay Duplass) are all three on their own emotional journeys and, ironically, less confident in their identities than their “Moppa”, a term Ali comes up with for their father-turned-mother while on drugs. Ali, who is probably traditionally the least responsible of the three, has her own uncertainties when it comes to her sexual identity. Sarah, a mother of two, impulsively leaves her husband (Rob Huebel) for her also married college girlfriend, Tammy (Melora Hardin), a decision she grows increasingly less confident in as the season goes on. Josh is arguably the most self-centered and has serious commitment issues, possibly stemming from a scandalous affair he had with his childhood babysitter as a young teenager, which comes back to haunt him with surprising consequences in the season finale. In a way, Maura’s very public and obvious journey of self discovery inspires the supporting characters to embark on their own journeys that, while less overt, still have great personal ramifications.

I know I have talked about it to an extent that is disproportionate to the rest of the series, but I need to briefly return to episode 7 to discuss Ali’s storyline. In the previous episode, Ali meets a trans man and agrees to go on a date with him. In an effort to make herself into the type of woman he typically prefers, she dolls herself up in a very uncharacteristic ultra-feminine outfit. We see them go on a truly bizarre, weirdly sexual lumberjack fantasy of a date where Dale is a stereotypical macho man who demands Ali call him “daddy”. After Maura’s talent show, when Ali gets back in the car with Dale, he accuses her of being a “chaser”, or someone who is only interested in trans people because they are trans. This upsets Ali greatly, and she rips off part of her girly get-up. When they arrive back at Dale’s home, however, both Ali and the viewer are baffled to find not the cartoonish log cabin from before, but a completely different, totally normal house, and along with it a totally normal Dale who simply offers her some tea. What makes this notable is that it is the only time in the series thus far where the show departs from reality, and it is not quite clear what it all means. Was Ali so determined to live out a fantasy that she just willed her brain to see things that weren’t actually there? This scene was jarring and atypical for the show in a very thought-provoking and intentionally confusing way. Transparent is consistently focused on showing that gender is far more complex than most of society believes, and this abstract storyline seems to prove that, much like most of the characters on the show, things and people are not always what they appear to be.

After hearing about the show and logging onto my Amazon Prime account to watch the pilot, I was surprised to see each episode was only a half-hour in length as the subject matter seemed more conducive to an hour-long format. As discussed in an earlier post in regards to Orange is the New Black, while I admire Transparent for its willingness to defy traditional genre boundaries, I worry about it hurting the show when awards season rolls around. I feel like it is more likely that Jeffrey Tambor will be submitted (and win) in the comedy categories, but it still does not feel quite right considering the seriousness of the character and situation he is portraying. At the same time I also cannot imagine this show being taken seriously in a drama category against the likes of Mad Men. It doesn’t really have a clear place, which makes its home on Amazon so fitting. Amazon is not a traditional TV medium, but this show is just as high in quality as anything on broadcast or cable. I know they hope it will be their breakout show and do for their original programming what House of Cards did for Netflix, and I think that will likely happen.

All 10 episodes of Transparent are available to stream for free on Amazon Prime, and if you have not already, I implore you to do so.


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