Culture

Film & Television

The unclear future of ‘Transparent’

By Craig Mathieson
Has Jeffrey Tambor given the groundbreaking series its most definitive ending?

Midway through the fourth season of Transparent, the elegiac television series about the ructions of a Jewish-American clan from Los Angeles, the show’s fulcrum, transgender woman Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), unexpectedly meets a long-lost blood relative during a trip to Israel. The relation talks about how they left America to take a second chance at life in the then young nation, and Maura, who transitioned at nearly 70 years of age, has an epiphany that, like so much on this inspired comic drama, is both fleeting and fertile.

“You can just start again?” wonders Maura aloud, bemused at the audacity of the idea and then shaken by the lost possibilities. For Maura, like her offspring, life is about the constant rhythm of change, conflict and reconciliation. On Transparent, you can’t draw a line under the past and consign it to history, because it never moves into the past tense. What has happened to you helps define – for better or worse – what comes next, and the series is an acute representation of how people can grow and naturally evolve, so that their emotional responses are like growth rings accrued over time.

Until now there have been few definitive endings on-screen in Transparent, which streams in Australia on Stan. But mid November, in the wake of the new season’s release, the show experienced one off-screen, when Jeffrey Tambor offered his hasty resignation, although he has recently backtracked. Tambor had been accused of sexual misconduct by a member of the supporting cast, as well as by his former personal assistant. An investigation by Amazon Studios is ongoing.

Beyond the unfortunately common occurrence of abuse allegations against a prominent man in the entertainment industry, there was the disappointment of Tambor’s purported actions demeaning the show’s ethos. Transparent is rich with radical concepts and religious experience, full of philosophy and faith that can be compelling without ever losing its relatability, and it embraced characters who were vulnerable and uncertain. The production team was also a model of inclusiveness in terms of gender, sexuality and race, a retort to Hollywood’s traditional production hierarchies.

Now, like Netflix’s House of Cards shorn of Kevin Spacey, Transparent may lose the actor who plays the central character. With their activist’s inclinations, series creator Jill Soloway – who now identifies as non-binary – has previously said that if Transparent were gearing up now, they would never cast a cisgender actor such as Tambor in the role of Maura. Soloway can’t recast the role – Tambor’s exemplary work in front of the camera was the definitive performance in a career that already included The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development – but the actor’s possible departure doesn’t necessarily have to leave a void.

When Transparent began with the announcement by Maura, a retired university professor, that she was no longer Mort, her three adult children – the defiantly unsatisfied wife and mother Sarah (Amy Landecker), wilfully buoyant music industry executive Josh (Jay Duplass), and sidetracked graduate student Ali (Gaby Hoffman) – were each still tethered to their parent, whether through financial support, emotional dependence, or misplaced family nostalgia. It was not entirely surprising that Maura had taught politics, for she certainly understood how to practise it.

But as Maura has explored challenge after illuminating challenge, whether finding a sense of place within the often subterranean Los Angeles transgender culture, or trying to secure gender-reassignment surgery, her children have had to support her. In turn, they’ve increasingly delved further into their own complex lives; the satellite states have found a degree of independence. There remains a tender elasticity to their ineffable family bond – which takes in Maura’s former wife and the children’s mother, Shelly (Judith Light) and Sarah’s on-off-on husband Len (Rob Huebel) – so that it snaps back together after being stretched, but their paths are increasingly distinct.

In the fourth season, that connection means they all end up, through the conciliatory efforts of the rediscovered Pfefferman, in Israel. “Borders. Occupation. It’s so intense,” notes Ali, and the stresses of the land they traverse could also apply to the family’s fraught dynamic. The strength of the writing may be in how these differing orbits find a complementary psychological synchronisation: it is only by the finale that Josh, who has long struggled with his feelings about sex and responsibility due to a teenage relationship with an adult female in a position of authority, realises that he is linked to his mother through the trauma of sexual abuse in her childhood that she has repressed for many decades.

Transparent’s techniques, which were once merely professional, have become almost proprietary. Earlier seasons that had flashbacks, including to 1930s Berlin where Maura’s mother escaped but others were taken by the Nazis, were supplanted by direct communications with the past. Maura’s memories of her early married years, when she thought her sexuality might explain her discomfort with her body, became conversations with the young woman she’d pictured herself as decades prior. Ghostly figures haunted some of the characters, drawing on Judaic myth, but they were as likely to crack jokes as cajole confessions.

Transparent has a remarkable ability to slip in and out of the everyday, in much the same way as the characters might surrender to pleasure and then snap back into their lives. When Sarah and Len start a polyamorous relationship with one of their children’s former kindergarten teachers, Lila (Alia Shawkat), they are more concerned with carefully applied guidelines than transgressive freedom – the way they initially call her, per the children’s kindergarten etiquette, Miss Lila, only adds to the curious intermingling of boundaries.

With the Pfeffermans in Israel for most of this season, there is less observation of Los Angeles’ mores, which the show is unusually well attuned to (listen to how Sarah says “ish” instead of issues during an argument with Josh), although there is a telling contrast in how an absent Maura is able to casually lend her home to Davina (Alexandra Billings), her friend and long-time transgender woman whose marginalisation has meant decades of “mental gymnastics” to keep a roof over her head. Like other enduring series, Transparent has great empathy for its creations, but it can critique them with heartfelt acuity.

The latest season misses the roiling emotion of Josh’s ex-fiancée, Rabbi Raquel Fein (Kathryn Hahn, seconded to Soloway’s terrific new series I Love Dick), but the ease with which it unfolds and the revelatory ground it covers confirms that Transparent is one of the emblematic creations of the streaming age: a niche production elevated by sheer quality to cultural prominence. Going forward it can survive, and likely prosper, even if it turns out to be without Tambor’s Maura. It doesn’t need to start again.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

Courtesy of Amazon Studios 

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