Transparent

I thank you heavenly father for this food, this great day, these lovely people, in Jesus’ name we pray.

Oy gevalt.

Let’s start here: Transparent is very funny.

Transparent is a half-hour show about a Jewish family in Los Angeles, but to call it a sitcom would be a horrendous mischaracterization. There’s no pressure to deliver a punch line every couple of minutes. The issues being explored are weighty.

But humor is everywhere. It’s in the little things: the way siblings give each other a hard time, the way Jewish mothers push food on everyone. It’s in the big things: the awkwardness of sex, the absurdity in the way we try to present ourselves.

 

At its most impactful, the humor pierces the subject matter’s heaviness and releases all the pent up emotion built while watching these people’s lives unfold. The feeling of relief and happiness that arises when humor cracks the wall of tension and pain is more wonderful than the amusement at any bit in a sitcom.

 

***

I hope I’m not ruining the kids with all this crazy stuff.

Remember our crazy stuff?

Yeah. It’s all blended in with the good stuff.

I’m glad you remembered the good stuff.

 

Human beings are rare in television. Instead, there are characters. Action figures played with by the invisible machine behind the show.

 

This is most obvious in a show like Game Of Thrones, where characters are pawns moved around in a larger effort to build a comprehensive world and compelling story. But it’s also true of less plot-driven shows, like Mad Men. Don Draper is more idea, more philosophical statement, than he is multi-dimensional human being who might exist somewhere in the world.

 

Transparent cares about human beings, not characters. And human beings are identities. Not two bullet summaries. Not a job and hobbies. Not the way they act at parties or with friends or with family. Just fluid, unidentifiable identities.

 ***

They are so selfish. I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.

 

Perhaps the most unique thing about Transparent is how uncomfortable it can be.

 

TV is comfortable. Even the so-called “Golden Age” shows — your Breaking Bads and your Mad Mens — take place in the television universe, with all the rules and safety that entails. Characters, and our relationships with them, have a predictably about them. We love them, or are disgusted by them, or are in awe of them. Rarely do we question or change the way we feel about them. Rarely do we see a new side to them, unless it is in the form of a plot twist. Rarely do they shock us.

 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Part of the reason we watch TV is for comfort. It’s nice to be able to escape our responsibilities and get lost in the haze of Netflix. But Transparent operates differently.

Transparent is television only in name. It never aired on actual, physical televisions, instead dropped in one batch of streaming files on Amazon Prime. As a result it is not bound by any rules, other than to be a good show. That freedom to do anything is what makes it uncomfortable.

 

***

 

Are you saying that you’re going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?

No, honey. All my life – my whole life I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.

 

I’ve left talking about the show’s plot until now, because Transparent isn’t just about one person or one issue. It’s about people trying to figure out who they are and what that means and what the hell they’re doing.

 

It is notable, though, that the show is built around Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transgender woman who finally comes out in her seventies. We watch as she begins her transition, seeing what comes with showing one’s true self after being forced to lead a secret life for over seven decades.

 

Not surprisingly, it’s a shock for everyone around her, especially her three adult children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffman). How do you react? What does it mean about their parent? What does it mean about them?

This isn’t a lecture on political correctness. The story is based on the show’s creator, Jill Solloway’s, own experience with her parent coming out as trans at 75. You can feel the sincerity in the way Maura’s children react. There is not gushing acceptance capped by a loving hug. There isn’t harsh bigotry. Mostly there’s confusion, shock, and even some giggling.

 

A story like this is unprecedented in television. Old people are rarely treated as anything more than one-note characters – wise or cranky or ridiculous. The existence of transgender people is ignored almost entirely.

 

Transparent dives headlong into areas of gender and sexuality that most are afraid of touching. It makes no bold statements and hides nothing. To do so would be to simplify something that isn’t simple. Instead, it shows people, without a hint of judgment.

 

Tambor’s performance as Maura is perfect. So much is communicated with so little. The strained look on her face, too brief for anyone to notice, when someone says something stupid. The slight feminine gestures that, without drawing any attention to themselves, reveal what Maura’s had to cover up her entire life. Without Tambor’s expert performance, the show simply wouldn’t work.

 

Maura’s children are no less fully realized. At first we see them as the rest of the world sees them. Sarah is the hurried but put-together married mother of two young children. Josh is the hip dude that works in the music industry and rocks button-downs with the top-button buttoned. Ali is the somewhat drifty youngest child.

 

As time passes, we’re allowed closer and closer until we see them startlingly naked emotionally. All three struggle with relationships and sexuality. Sarah runs into, and eventually off with an ex-girlfriend, but her husband is still present and important. Josh navigates a slew of romantic relationships, his neediness hinting at an underlying problem. Ali struggles with not just her physique, but her femininity and the way she represents it to the world. And all three are, like most people, much more absorbed with their own issues than what those around them are dealing with.

 

The realism with which they’re presented is not cold. It is, like the rest of the show, compassionate, sad, and kind of hilarious. Transparent is a groundbreaking show in a lot of ways. It’s also a great show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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