When a new series offers up a racially diverse cast, or tackles issues of sexuality, or dares show nudity without sexual implications, or has any sort of feminist/womanist leanings, it’s called “groundbreaking,” “bold,” or powerful.” It’s celebrated for being different and for starting a dialogue about something that has not quite made it to mainstream conversation. So, while it’s always exciting when something like Orange is the New Black or even Scandal comes onto the scene, it’s also disappointing that we still have to celebrate women of color, or women of a certain age, or trans men and women getting a voice through these new television series. It’s 2014, and they/we should all, already have a voice, because society has demanded it—without prompting from television. But, here we are, anyway.
Amazon enters the wonderful world of original content with Transparent, which promises to stand apart from the critically-acclaimed Netflix shows, and really, all TV shows in general. There’s really no other way to put it: it is unique. Sure, you could align it with the 2005 movie Transamerica, or call it “Modern Family with a bold, new twist,” but such comparisons fall flat (nor are they necessary). Transparent is one of the first shows I’ve seen in a very long time where the characters feel, look, and sound completely authentic. This is groundbreaking. The rest of it—the transgender patriarch, the nudity, the explorations into eroticism—is certainly interesting, but is only made so because strong performances from the main cast function as the true foundation of the series.
In the pilot episode, creator Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under, United States of Tara) brings us an LA family comprised of a loving, patient father (Jeffrey Tambour), one daughter who doesn’t quite have it together (Gaby Hoffman), another daughter who appears to have it all together (Amy Landecker), and the type of son known for sleeping with the young women musicians he manages (Jay Duplass). The opening images, featuring old footage of the siblings as children, almost seems to say—“Yup, this is just another story, about another normal family.” And indeed, they are normal. Ali (Hoffman), Sarah (Landecker), and Josh (Duplass) each have their own lives, and aren’t especially close to their father (or, not as close as they might think). This becomes clear when they each get a phone call from Mr. Pfefferman, and have no idea why he’s inviting them all to dinner. They assume, almost jokingly, lightheartedly, that it’s to announce a cancer diagnosis.
And after we’ve seen them all in their own habitats, we get to see them at their childhood home, sitting around a table as their father attempts to tell them his big truth. He is transitioning into womanhood, but he can’t tell them right now because, 1.) it’s a big truth to tell, and 2.) they’re busy revealing their truth to him—the truth that they are assholes. His voice can barely be heard, above their accusations of cancer. So instead of “I’m transgender” or “For a long time, I’ve been dressing in women’s clothes,” or “I’m transitioning,” all he can muster is “I’m selling the house.” Tambour delivers a powerful performance here, even in his silence. He’s wearing that disappointment on his face—disappointment in his own children, and in their shortcomings, for which he knows he is somehow responsible. And even so, he shares a tender moment with Ali afterwards. Writing her a check, he all but says she is his favorite: “Out of all my kids, you’re the one—you can see me most clearly. Probably because we share the depressive gene.”
Ali laughs it off, but he’s triggered something in her. And then we get another quiet, but powerful, sequence of scenes, as the characters strip down. For the audience, the first “hint” at Papa Pfefferman’s trans truth is the shot of him casually taking off his clothes when the kids leave, and slipping into a beautiful floor-length robe. He lets his hair down in bed, and opens a magazine. He looks to be so at home with himself. Josh leaves and visits Rita, a woman whose body he practically buries himself in. She says, “Make yourself comfortable,” and he drags himself from the floor, up between her legs. He looks infantile, and she pulls out her breast, like a mother filled with milk.
Ali is shown looking at her fully nude body in a mirror, before seeking out the fitness trainer we’d seen her eyeing at the beginning of the episode.
“I just wanna change my body,” she says. She adds that she wants to feel “rooted” like a tree trunk. “I could use some discipline.” Yes, the message is a little heavy-handed, but you can still appreciate it.
And that may be the only real critique of Transparent. That character authenticity that I praised earlier, might be slightly off in those moments where the writing is just a bit too poetic, too metaphorical (the title might be another example of this). But even this critique is a form of praise—those little moments are worth the reminder that this is a scripted form of entertainment, because this script is damn good.
It could also be said that, while the narratives centering around the children are interesting enough (I’m most excited to see where Sarah’s storyline goes, since she and an old flame—who happens to be a woman—are reigniting), Tambour as Maura just steals the show. His monologue in the trans group is just… perfect. The camera pans around the circle of others in transition, as he described his first experience being “out.” That story of him handing over his driver’s license at the grocery store, while dressed as himself—as Maura—was beautiful, moving, and had just the right amount of humor. “Do not cry in front of this woman, do not cry in front of this woman…” It’s only the first episode, so one hopes that the plots concerning the three little Pfeffermans will become equally compelling.
“Move that big ass.” I need Ali’s personal trainer in my life. For more reasons than one.
Please let there be more awesome musical moments, like Josh’s group covering Jim Croce.
I love that, so far, we only know Tambour’s character’s first name to be Maura.
Favorite Quote of the Episode: “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.” (Maura)
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.