April 2015

Arts & Letters

Seeing clearly

By Anna Goldsworthy

The title of Jill Soloway’s new comedy-drama series for Amazon Studios, Transparent, speaks of a desire to be seen as who you truly are. It also refers, literally, to a trans parent. Soloway, a former writer and executive producer for Six Feet Under and United States of Tara, was inspired by her father, who came out as transgender late in life. Transparent charts the transition of retired political-science professor Mort Pfefferman (Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor) to Maura, and the impact that this has on her family.

Tambor’s Maura has a receding hairline, a depressive affect and a low, adenoidal voice, and yet there are moments of lightness in which she sheds Mort entirely: her girlish giggles in a hotel corridor when she is first acknowledged as a woman; her novice’s delight in the minutiae of femininity. (“That’s a pretty colour.” “Thank you, it’s called Cherries on Fire.”) A series of flashbacks illustrates key moments in her transition: her first reveal to a friend in a hotel room (“No one’s ever seen me except me”), and later to her incredulous wife, Shelly (Judith Light). “You do this in front of other people?” asks Shelly. “I can’t. I’m done.” Over time, the femininity become more refined, as Daphne Sparkles gives way to Maura, and the sequins and stilettos are replaced by kaftans and sensible shoes. And yet Maura never entirely “passes”. In one of the show’s most painful sequences, she is driven out of a ladies’ bathroom in a shopping centre, and stops at a building-site portaloo on the way home instead. For the viewer, it is a lesson in empathy, in understanding what it is to live in a society that sees you in a fundamentally different way from how you see yourself.

But Transparent’s purpose is greater than didactic. In the seventh episode, Maura appears in a talent show, ‘Trans Got Talent’, alongside her trans mentor, Davina (Alexandra Billings). Maura’s three adult children are in the audience under duress, pre-emptively stoned. “The dude had no talent whatsoever. What talent did he acquire now that he’s a chick?” asks Josh (Jay Duplass), her music producer son. As Maura delivers a po-faced version of Gotye and Kimbra’s ‘Somebody that I Used To Know’, bedecked in flowing ABBA gown, we share her nervousness, her vulnerability, her craving for her children’s acceptance. And yet, at the same time, we bear witness alongside her children to her absurdity: those rhinestones, that platinum bob, that lugubrious foghorn voice. “He looks just like Aunt Lily,” gasps Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), and one by one they flee the room. But then afterwards, when a forlorn Maura eschews a celebratory drink, Davina’s assessment seems exactly right: “You’re spending a lot of time stuck on those, pardon my French, rude fucking kids.”

It is a scene that offers, in microcosm, the process of the entire show, with its rotating point of view. The challenge of transitioning is largely one of point of view, stemming from the dissonance between the way the transgender person views themselves and the way the world views them, and Transparent makes this its subject. It is a true ensemble piece, and each of the children is on a parallel journey of exploration.

Sarah (Amy Landecker), the eldest, is a disenchanted housewife and mother of two, squabbling with her wealthy husband, Len (Rob Huebel), about tone of voice: “I’ll get a tape recorder, and I’ll play it back for you.” Early in the series she leaves Len to take up with her college girlfriend, the suave Tammy (Melora Hardin), a celebrity interior designer.

Josh, the womanising middle son, crashes through a number of beds before finding solace in the arms of Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). “You know how a serial killer wants to see it in your eyes?” asks Ali’s friend Syd (Carrie Brownstein), one of his many conquests. “Josh wants to see in your eyes that you love him, that you never met anyone like him before.”

Ali, the youngest daughter, is charismatic and eccentric. (“You look like a fucking punk-rock broccoli!” remarks Josh, of her new short haircut.) She is also one of the most convincing (if undiagnosed) Asperger’s females on television. Hoffmann confers a beguiling purity on her character, even when demonstrating the mechanics of a planned threesome. “You’re a vaginal learner,” Syd later observes. “It’s like you have to stick stuff in there in order to understand it.”

The three are entirely believable as siblings, playing out their shifting alliances against a bedrock of affection and resentment. Even at their most outrageous, we forgive them (much as we forgive our own siblings). This is due not only to the writing but also the virtuosic acting. Only their brittle mother, Shelly, seems too broad by comparison, as if her character has stepped out of The Golden Girls, though she becomes more human as the series proceeds.

Throughout the series, characters ascend and descend in the viewer’s esteem. Sarah’s ex-husband Len evolves from patriarchal bully (“Maybe I could cut my dick off? Would that make it easier for everyone?”) to sweet and funny, so that you start rooting for a reconciliation. Meanwhile, Tammy falls out of favour with the show’s writers, guilty of overweening machismo and self-promotion: “I know a little something about being jealous because people have been jealous of me my entire life.” As in life, most of the characters exist in a type of moral limbo, punctuated by moments of personal best and worst. We get a sense of Maura’s pathos but are not spared her self-absorption. “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves,” she remarks to her support group. (Soloway is not averse to dramatic irony.) Flashbacks reveal that she cancelled Ali’s bat mitzvah in order to attend cross-dressing camp; the other family members also peeled off for the weekend, leaving the 13-year-old Ali to hitch rides with strangers. Of all the characters, only Rabbi Raquel remains unimpeachable – generous, wise and funny – so that we fear for her in the hands of Josh.

Soloway claims to have asked herself the question “What would I do if I granted myself the same kind of artistic entitlement that Lena Dunham grants herself?” Transparent does bear some resemblance to Dunham’s Girls: Jewish people behaving badly; indie soundtrack; assorted humiliations of the flesh (the slap of the over-lubricated dildo falling onto the public bathroom floor, as Ali experiments with a trans boyfriend). It is attention-grabbing television, with generous lashings of nudity, but it differs from Girls in that it believes in good sex and allows its protagonists to enjoy it. And if this sometimes looks like sex in the movies, it is salvaged by an attention to everyday detail, such as the children’s car seats hastily abandoned alongside the SUV in which Tammy and Sarah have their first tryst.

The series unfolds like a piece of music. This is partly due to the deft soundtrack, which ranges from Neil Young to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and was curated by Soloway’s husband, Bruce Gilbert. But it is also due to its masterful camerawork and editing: its tonal modulations, its rhythmic command. There are gorgeous, impressionistic sequences, such as when Ali, high on pure MDMA, is conveyed home in an Uber car after a failed threesome.

Despite its audacity, Transparent is a gentle experience. Nostalgia is a visual as well as a narrative element, and the flashbacks have a faux-vintage Instagram quality. The opening credits splice historic footage of bar and bat mitzvahs and transgender pageants, signposting the amalgamation of gender issues and Jewishness that lends the series its identity. Throughout, Jewish rituals act as structural markers, even as they are repeatedly commandeered by others. A Shabbat dinner is invaded by Len, and Ali’s bat mitzvah is cancelled by Mort. A shiva is overtaken not only by Maura but also by Tammy: “Thank all of you who have come, just for commenting on what we’ve done to the house.”

It is painful television, speaking of what it is to be a flawed person in a flawed family. It is uncommonly accomplished and surefooted. But it is more than that. It is generous and funny and expansive, and even – a word you rarely reach for when describing television – beautiful.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and pianist. She is director of the cultural policy program at the Stretton Institute and director of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

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