Jill Soloway, who has described her new series, Transparent, as just like any other family series, understands the difficulty of family. Her feature debut, Afternoon Delight, proved as much; exploring the unhappiness of marriage, it's a perfectly blunt, comic approach to depicting a woman who couldn't cope with the boredom of marriage. And, as she's shown throughout her writing (Six Feet Under, United States of Tara), most people are damaged, most people struggle, and those who claim they don't are simply hiding behind a veil.
While Afternoon Delight focused solely on a wife and mother, Transparent widens its reach to every single member of the Pfefferman family. The series is about a quaint Jewish family whose world is pushed out of balance when Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), who had been presenting as male assigned, and as the family patriach, comes out to her family as a trans woman. Once known as "Mort" and as "Dad," Tambor's character now identifies as "Maura" (and simply "Parent" or the ever-affectionate "Moppa"). Things have very clearly changed for the Pfefferman children -- Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) -- as well as the rest of the family.
The series is not limited to simply the experiences of the show's titular trans parent (if you didn't get the title before, now you do), nor does it stick to exploring the reactions of all three children. It expands its narrative to everyone who is a part of the Pfefferman family's life. In fact, what makes the show so interesting is that nearly everyone is pushed to explore their gender identity or sexual identity.
We begin with Maura, who was inspired by Soloway's own parent, who transitioned later in life. And as problematic as it might be for a cisgender male actor to play a trans woman, Tambor's performance works surprisingly well, in great part because of the talented writing and an abundance of trans individuals in the cast and crew. While much of her life onscreen could be considered specific to someone transitioning in their later years, certain things depicted on the show are likely things that anyone transitioning might experience.
The pilot episode features a scene that's hard to watch. Maura struggles desperately to tell her children about her identity. She settles for revealing she's selling the house. In that scene, we watch Maura's determination to explain her transition fade away. And to drill the pain in even further, Soloway cuts to Maura's face every time one of her children says "Dad" or "Daddy."
Another scene vital to Maura's characterization is when she attends a support group of other trans individuals. She tells them a story of her going out to a store:
"Well I went to Target, and I just -- I took her out, you know what I mean? And I got into, you know, the checkout line, and the girl at the cash register said, "I need to see some ID with that credit card of yours. And, well, you know what that's like, right? And I just knew. I said, 'This is gonna not be good. This is gonna get ugly. And so she just, um, kept looking at me." We see Tambor miming the cashier holding her ID with a disappointed look and then adding, "And then she said, "Oh."
The series is filled with tough scenes like that, just as it's filled with light ones that will leave you laughing so hard you'll have to hit pause. It's a dramedy through and through, and one that cares about its depiction of a struggling family, smartly balancing every angle it approaches. But Maura isn't the only queer member of the Pfefferman family. In fact, Josh is the only one of the children who doesn't question his sexuality or gender identity, thus making him arguably a little less interesting to explore. He does, however, find himself struggling with offbeat situations (a sexual relationship with his much older babysitter, getting dumped by a girl from a band he discovered, dating a female rabbi, etc.) that deserve a closer look than this piece has time for. Ali and Sarah, however, are very much within the queer spectrum.
One scene from the pilot shows Ali first laying on a bed naked and then standing in front of a mirror staring at her body before rushing to cover it up. Its shown in absolute silence, and its something familiar. It cuts to her speaking with a physical fitness instructor at the park about "getting fit." I cant count the times Ive had to stare at myself in displeasure and instantaneously wondered just how comfortable I am being in this skin. Even something as simple as Maura telling her, "Boy, it is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see," provides a clear signal of what's to come for her soon-to-be genderqueer character. She's one of the show's most fascinating characters. Like Maura, she struggles with queer identity.
Sarah's narrative follows a more mainstream questioning of sexuality. Sarah is married to a man. Sarah has had relationships in the past with women. Sarah is currently involved with another woman. Sarah is bisexual, and that's definitely one of the LGBT letters that's underrepresented. In certain ways, Soloway plays again with the theme of a woman trapped in a bored marriage. Without the limitations of a feature, and a full season to work with her character and have her interact with an abundance of individuals (some queer, some bigoted, some clueless), she has an open field to depict a genuinely conflicted woman, still unsure of what she really wants or needs in life at her middle-age.
Some critics have suggested they don't want to watch queer struggles; its already hard enough dealing with them in reality, why watch them on screen? But I believe television that explores these narratives, however great or flawed, and makes them available for queer audiences, is doing something genuinely important. Sometimes we do all end up at the dinner table together, regardless of what we've been through, but not every narrative closes like a sitcom does, with a round of applause and a lesson learnt. People deal with the first stretch of shit, and then find themselves making more mistakes or finding that their initial move wasnt as good as they thought it was. Soloway shows this in nearly all of her characters.
Even more so, the queer world isnt quite as cookie-cutter as what the media shows. It's wonderful that Ellen DeGegeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, and shows like Modern Family have a piece of the spotlight, but it doesn't exactly leave space for bisexual or trans representation. Transparent is a show that's unafraid to address the fluidity of gender and sexuality.
It's with queer works like this--these slice-of-life shows that cisgender heterosexual individuals have in abundance--that our communities actually stand to move forward. It's shows like Transparent - shows where stories of sets without gendered bathrooms are told, where trans and feminist literature is passed out to cast and crew alike, where an abundance of the cast and crew are just as queer as the people watching - that make people like me a little more comfortable about the future of television.
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To think that a show so progressive, but still not perfect, has arrived, and it has one of the most inclusive behind-the-scenes productions around, is awesome. Here's hoping this is only the first step into a very queer, very awesome, world of television.