With Jeffrey Tambor taking home his 4000th Emmy award yesterday and the new season arriving exclusively to Lightbox on Saturday, Sam Brooks tells you exactly why you need to catch up with Transparent.
When Transparent was announced as a pilot for Amazon TV, a pilot where Arrested Development patriarch Jeremy Tambor would be playing a transgender woman transitioning late in life, my first thought was: “Amazon! That’s the site I ordered a PS2 from about 10 years ago that never showed up! They don’t make TV!”
My second thought was that this was going to either going to be a terrible three-camera sitcom with horrible transmisogynist jokes, or every episode was going to be a Very Special Episode. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Here are five reasons why you should be watching Transparent:
1) It’s the best representation of the trans experience we have so far
I should qualify this first by saying that I’m a gay cis person of colour, so my assessment of this being the best representation of the trans experience we have so far is limited by that experience.
The criticisms from the trans community of this show are valid, coming from a history of misrepresentation or no representation, and also from a place of deeply felt pain. I can’t speak to those experiences or those criticisms; it’s not my place to. But when Jeffrey Tambor says that he wishes that he’s the last cisgendered white male to play a transwoman, it feels to me like a step in the right direction.
Transparent is the story of a person transitioning late in life. Maura Pfeifferman (Jeremy Tambor) has spent 60 years of her life living as Mort, and has fathered three kids, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman).
The most impressive, and upfront, thing that Transparent does is that it treats Maura like a human being. When people in the trans community call Maura out on her privileged behavior, it’s bracing and real. Transparent is frank about the fact that Maura carries the experience of living as a privileged straight white man for most of her life, and how that informs the world she lives in now.
The fact that Transparent can communicate that without making it seem like a lecture is tremendous. These are heady topics, ones that you can discuss endlessly without coming to any real conclusion. To see a television show treating them with that kind of weight is a real special, beautiful thing.
Nowhere is this more evident than the penultimate episode of the second season. Maura and the other female Pfeffermans go to an all-women’s festival and, after some meandering, Maura finds out that she – a transwoman – isn’t welcome.
When she has a confrontation with some women at the festival, neither side is demonised. We feel Maura’s pain and struggle at being marginalised in a place that she thought included her, but we also understand why these women wouldn’t want her there. We mightn’t necessarily agree with them, but one of the beautiful things about Transparent is that it makes room for differing viewpoints.
Transparent isn’t starting conversations. These conversations have been held by trans communities for decades. What Transparent is doing is making these conversations visible and accessible to the mainstream. I don’t understand the trans experience fully, and I never will be, but by watching Transparent I feel like I’ve been educated on that experience and some of the struggles that go along with it.
2) … and it’s about so much more than that
If Transparent was just about Maura’s experience, it would be a great show. But what turns it from an great show into an essential one is the way that it incorporates the rest of the Pfefferman clan.
All three of Maura’s children are scarily easy to hate for characters on a television show that we’re meant to like. Sarah cheats on her husband in the first episode, Ali is blissfully unaware of the privilege that allows her to take her time figure out what she wants to do with her life, and Josh is a music producer.
Transparent doesn’t ask us to like any of these characters, but it asks us to empathise with them. We see these character flail – and they do some masterful tragicomic flailing – and we see them fuck-up, sometimes devastatingly.
In the second season, Transparent takes these characters right to the edge of likeability, but never pushes them over the cliff into being cartoonish. When Josh feebly tries to step up to being a father, when Sarah is experimenting with her sexuality, and Ali is struggling with her sexuality in a very different way, we’re allowed to engage with them as actual humans. They’re just people who are fucking up and slowly, but surely, trying to fuck up less.
Just as much as Maura is transitioning from male to female, the Pfefferman clan is equally in transition. They’re trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into the world.
3) It does interesting things with the form
There are game-changers like The Office, without which we wouldn’t have The Thick Of It, Veep or Parks and Recreation. It’s not inventing a form of television, but it’s pushing the limits of what we think television can do and can be. Then you’ve got something like Girls, which is gently – but confidently – pushing those limits. Transparent is in this same boat.
The second season takes momentary, almost dreamlike, flashbacks to a pre-World War II Germany. A woman is trying to flee Germany with children, one of whom is a boy transitioning into a girl, or attempting to do so. It doesn’t appear related to the present day story of the Pfefferman’s at all. These flashbacks aren’t prefaced in any way, and don’t appear in places where we might expect flashbacks. They pop up and then disappear.
It isn’t until the last few episodes of the season that you really understand what Transparent is trying to do. I’m delicately talking around spoilers, but to see a television series – remember that this shares a medium with The Bachelor – engage with the idea of hereditary trauma is astounding.
4) It lives up to the hype and the awards
I hate hype. I avoid trailers like the plague and if more than 10 people share a link on Facebook I won’t click on it. If everybody I run into is telling me to watch a TV show, I will probably avoid it.
Hype aversion is why I have watched half an episode of Breaking Bad, it’s why I stopped watching Game of Thrones about two seasons in and why I would rather run through a burning window pane than watch House of Cards. It is also why I avoided Transparent for a good few months after it came out.
When a show wins the awards that Transparent has won, raking in two Emmys just yesterday, you start to want to back away a bit. It can’t be that good, and is it even a comedy?
Transparent is an awards juggernaut that is oddly placed in the dark forest of awards season. It falls into the same trench between comedy and drama that Orange is the New Black, Girls and Nurse Jackie found themselves in.
(The fact that these are not comedies but dramas about women, that nonetheless people have decided can’t compete with the serious dramas of House of Cards and Game of Thrones is another issue.)
Is Transparent a comedy? It’s a comedy like a Lars Von Trier film is a comedy. You laugh because it’s hitting somewhere true and deep, not because Jim Parsons is saying “Bazinga!”.
5) It’s something you should be watching
“You should definitely watch [show!]” is a very easy way to get me to never watch [show]. It’s probably the rebellious teenager living deep inside me.
But I’ll tell you you should be watching Transparent because it makes you a better person. It helps you to understand an experience that you might not have even considered before, an experience that deserves to be understood and shared. It’s not the be-all-to-end-all, but if you’ve never met or spoken to a transperson before, there are worse places to start.
Even more crucially, Transparent invites us to see ourselves in Maura and the whole Pfefferman clan. Maura isn’t just a transwoman, she’s a person who has had a long history with struggles and difficulties that we can all empathise with. We can see our struggles reflected in her, and her family. We’re all people in transition.
to our journalism!Find Out More
Transparent treats all its characters like real people, regardless of sexuality, gender, class, race and privilege. It’s one of the first shows I’ve seen do that, and that’s what makes it special.
That’s why you should be watching
Get caught up with Pfefferman clan in Transparent, before the third season arrives exclusively to Lightbox on Saturday 24th
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.