Transparent: A Show Where Transition Is the Default State

Transparent is a show you need to be watching if you’re not already. The premise is pretty straightforward: it follows the Pfeffermans, an L.A. family whose patriarch becomes their matriarch. The series, available on Amazon Instant Video, chronicles how everyone copes with the news, supports one another, and lets each other down. There are plenty of things—the number of “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!” real-and-raw comedies that this era’s already churned out, not to mention a subject matter that could have been easily mishandled by this particular industry—that might’ve made this show trite, or simply bad. The fact that it is neither is already a commendable achievement. But beyond that, Transparent is slam-dunking, across the board, in a way that reaffirms your belief in modern storytelling and TV as a vehicle for it. Or at least mine.

For one thing, the script treats the series’ central character (Maura) with tremendous respect, and as much as the show is a coming-out story, it’s also a very belated coming of age story. The most powerful scenes in Transparent are those in which Maura experiences “firsts” as a woman: she sits down at a restaurant with Marcy and the waitress calls them “ladies,” she drives onto a campground for a retreat weekend and sees everyone, everywhere, wearing dresses. In these moments, we see her undergo the kind of thrilled vulnerability and wonder reserved in art for jittery teens on their way to a concert or first date.

For all intents and purposes, these little achievements are on par with those formative teenage milestones. This is Maura’s first time really getting to sit and feel the inertia of being a woman. This is her first time getting to do what feels best without thinking about it, without filtering herself through the sieve of Mort and without watering down and reinterpreting her impulses with a conservative men’s ponytail or gold pinkie ring. The smallest acts of femininity are suddenly decadent as hell because they’re finally hers. Watching this late-in-life adolescence—and how sweetly and sensitively Jeffrey Tambor plays it—had me shouting, “Mauuuuuraaaa!” at my TV whenever I saw it happening: Maura lightly touching a vase on Davina’s countertop, Maura fiddling with her Berkley desert queen purse while sitting in a chair, Maura riding a bicycle in a pale pink cardigan. Yes. There she is.

She stumbles into her femininity with the knock-kneed conversations and liberal attitude toward eye shadow that any girl might, but her exhilaration is compounded by the fact that she’s been waiting decades for the privilege to suss out all of these finer details—for the sense of emotional safety to say, “Today I put on the shawl and the dress and I go to the grocery store, even if they ask to see my ID.”

That this character can exist and come off as beautifully as she does is largely due to the series’ superb writing. The emotional energy of the entire family ebbs and flows together like they’re one neurotic anemone, and they move at a pace that’s honest. Characters bend to meet each other. They bite their tongues and grapple with things on their own time. Mort becoming Maura means that Dad becomes Moppa, true, but it also means that Sarah considers the state of her own failing marriage, Joshie faces the implications of his childhood relationship with a much-older babysitter, and Ali tries to make sense of her suspended development. This is not a Dawson’s Creek kind of show, where it takes 75 episodes for a character to admit she has an inkling of a feeling, maybe, possibly. This show trusts us to let it move fast, to let the plate tectonics of the family move in accordance, and we get taken to some pretty beautiful places as a result.

Maura’s transition ends up being just one event shared by this group of people who are all constantly transitioning. This is a family organism that’s never not recalibrating and adjusting to the new, changing needs of every member. And that’s Transparent‘s greatest project of all: giving us a trans character who lives and breathes in a world with other characters who treat the situation like it’s one of 75 other things they have going on in their own lives. Even if you don’t know a family like them, you know that this family exists.

There’s Shelly’s indifference to her ailing second husband, Joshie’s struggle to react well to Kaya’s pregnancy, Sarah’s impromptu affair with Tammy, Ali’s strained friendship with Syd: all of these characters are struggling with loneliness, sexuality, the reality of the choices they’ve made over the years. All of them are feeling the weight of their potential selves pressing on their shoulders while they’re floundering in the present. Maura’s not separate, not different, not foreign in her transition. It’s what makes her the same. A woman. A Pfefferman.

That’s where the strength of this show lies. The scenes with the Pfeffermans at a dinner table, chatting. The Pfeffermans in Shelly’s living room, squabbling. Because figuring out “who goes out to the yard to hand these bagels-and-lox to Sarah and Len while they’re fighting” is what people do for each other on this planet. That’s an emotional navigation system you have in place for the people you love. It’s not, “Will I show up?” but, “How will I show up?” And whether the question is “How will I tell my brother he’s being a dumbass?” or “How will I allow my father to now be my mother?”, that question—how will I show up?—is the one these characters keep asking themselves in a way that’s delightful to watch. How do I love myself better? How do I do this right?

Same, Pfeffermans. Deep same.

Christine Friar writes/lives in New York. She has a Twitter.

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