Photo: Courtesy Of Amazon.
We totally get it. You already have a standing, Monday-evening date with the ever-electrifying James Spader via NBC's The Blacklist. Claire Danes and her infamous cry-face return to us this weekend on Showtime's Homeland. And, hey, did you remember to make it all the way through your Netflix queue of last season's shows? We know there's no shortage of options for your eyeballs this fall. But, we're here to tell you to clear your schedule: There's only one show you should be watching this weekend. And, you should binge-watch it; you have the director's permission.
Jill Soloway wrote, produced, and directed Amazon's new show, Transparent. "I think it's great to binge," she tells me when I ask what she thinks of viewers consuming her new show all in one sitting. All you need to get hooked is one episode.
George Bluth, Sr. Jeffrey Tambor plays vulnerable, sensitively drawn Maura, a woman previously known as "Dad." The show's first episode introduces Maura and her daring admission, which is something along the lines of: "Hey kids, you know all those years I was the patriarch of the family? I was living a lie."
Transparent derives its momentum from the fluctuating family dynamics that surround Maura and her coming-out. Maura, formerly Mort, is head of the Pfefferman clan, a well-off Jewish family from Los Angeles' Pacific Palisades. Sarah, played by Amy Landecker, is Maura's oldest, a stressed-out mom of two. Josh, played by Jay Duplass, is Maura's second child. Maura describes him as the "successful" one — for his dabblings in L.A.'s music industry, apparently — though his naïve approach to dating is anything but. Ali (Gaby Hoffman), the youngest child, is alternately charming and infuriatingly adrift. While she's ostensibly the black sheep of the family, she displays some of the most touching moments of connection with her transitioning father — at least some of which may be chalked up to the fact that she's on her own version of a gender-identification journey. "You finally make sense to me," Ali coos to Maura at one point, taking Maura's face into her hands and looking into her eyes, as if seeing her parent for the first time.
Photo: Courtesy Of Amazon.
Soloway got the idea for Transparent after her own parent came out as trans* about three years ago. I ask if the family dynamics that play out between the show's siblings and parents are autobiographical. "The show is totally fictional," Soloway tells me, "but my sister Faith Soloway is a writer on the show, and I hired people who feel like siblings to me and who get what it feels like to be part of a family like this."
Part of Transparent's realism is that members of Maura's family are often hard to root for. Between Sarah's bitter frustration with her marriage and accompanying extramarital soul-searching (a.k.a. affair with her female ex-lover), Josh's immaturity in romance, and Ali's struggle with pretty much everything, it's Maura who comes off as the show's most grounded, compassionate character. At times, the Pfefferman children are even downright unlikable. "I’m not really thinking about being unflattering," Soloway explains. "I’m just trying for them to be truthful [characters], and in particular with the women characters."
Soloway continues: "As a filmmaker, as a feminist, as an artist, I am challenging myself with using the cameras to get inside [the characters'] bodies and look out, whereas most portrayals — of sexual women in particular — are looking at them; they're objectifying women like this, and they're judging them. So, I'm really excited just to subvert what is 'likable'... We see it in men all the time; Tony Soprano has affairs, Walter White is selling drugs. People are used to seeing fucked-up men do fucked-up things, but I think when people see women do that, they call it unlikeable."
While Transparent's been widely lauded for its authentic take on trans* issues (and the "transfirmative action" program, created by show collaborators Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker, which involved trans* people at every level of the show's creation), Soloway has been criticized for casting a heterosexual, cisgendered male in the protagonist's role. She understands this criticism, but sees another side to that debate as well: "When I began creating the idea for the show, I was absolutely, positively not politicized to the problem of the lack of trans* representation... [But] there's also a history to the reality that late transitioners — people in their 60s and 70s who have had a life of secrecy and shame — may or may not be interested in hormones, may or may not be interested in therapy. So, when they're out in the world, they may or may not have their gender read as they wish it were... For some of those reasons, I feel like it could be appropriate in some scenarios for Jeffrey to be playing this character."
What is clear is that Tambor renders the role of Maura with deep humanity. Maura gets frustrated, angry, and sometimes says what might be better left unsaid. But, her courage and her love for her family speak loudest; her own struggles serve as the anchor for a network of shifting family relationships that, even at their most fraught, are rooted in loyalty. The sum total is a show (finally!) in which a trans* character's gender identity acts as a catalyst for character development. It doesn't exist in a vacuum, or as a statement in and of itself. There's nothing preachy about Transparent, no tokenism, no self-consciousness. It's a situational comedy in its truest form; it's the kind of show that draws humor not from one-liners but from observing people who love each other and are trying to make sense of each other — and of themselves. It's the kind of show that will be legible to all of us who have ever struggled to find common ground with someone we love.