Last weekend, I spent five hours binge-watching the first season of Transparent. I then spent every waking hour (when I wasn’t out watching The Revenant, more fool me) of this past week watching the second season. My PB for binge-watching has been broken. Two seasons in less than a week. That is going on my CV.
For reasons slightly out of my grasp, I had been avoiding watching Transparent. I think my hesitation may have been to do with the subject matter (I expected an emotionally draining series and I just wasn’t feeling that most Sunday afternoons) and also because it employed the same technique as many other films/tv shows that have tried to represent trans women. The cis-man-in-a-dress situation. Which kind of put me off, if I’m honest. Ever since I saw Dallas Buyers Club and watched at the ridiculous amount of praise that Jared Leto got for being “brave enough” to wear women’s clothing, I am slightly wary of any tv series of film which chooses to cast a cis-man to play a trans-woman. Hence why I won’t be watching The Danish Girl. Also Eddie Redmayne really grinds my gears. So seeing that Jeffrey Tambor was playing the role of Maura, a recently out trans-woman, I was intrigued but also very hesitant about watching Transparent. I think this is something that we do need to keep in mind when discussing the series merits or failings, for a show that is trying to be inclusive and progressive it has almost fallen at the first hurdle of intersectionality.
So Jeffrey Tambor is Maura Pfefferman (we are introduced to Maura as Mort). She’s divorced, got kids, got grandkids, is selling her house and she is also coming out to her kids as trans for the first time. Maura’s kids consist of Sarah (housewife type who is cheating on her picket-fence husband with her college girlfriend), Josh (middle child syndrome personified, but we will expand on Josh later) and Ali (slightly immature adult-child who needs to get her life together). The premise of Transparent sounds like a family melodrama, one of those which leave you on a cliffhanger every week and there’s always so much going on that it’s hard to keep track until you eventually just give up watching. It’s not like that at all. What Transparent does really well is individualises all of its characters. What I mean by that is Transparent handles each of the characters problems individually, and allows to understand why they react to each other in certain ways considering what is going on in their own lives. Kind of like most families. Transparent is actually a show about families, how difficult they can be, how selfish they are and how everyone has their own shit going on.
Ultimately it is Maura’s transition that is a catalyst for each of the characters, but what we soon realise is that Maura is the only one who has her shit together and knows what she wants. So whilst it is about Maura coming out, it’s more about other people accepting who Maura is (or rather who they are themselves) than it is about Maura having a crisis of identity. This is great, because it sidesteps the grossly overused trope that trans people must so confused about themselves. Mauras revelation actually forces the other characters to evaluate their own lives, which is actually what Transparent is about. It also deftly adds gender fluidity, sexuality, love and sex into the conversation and explores these issues in relation to each character. The Pfefferman’s are truly a melting pot of gender and sexuality, and it’s interesting to see how each individual reacts to themselves and each other.
In season one we are introduced to these characters, all of whom seem to be on a reactionary course instigated by Maura coming out. Maura is pretty self assured, so in a way season one is more about the other family members accepting her for who she is. It sets the groundwork for characters who are starting out on journeys of self discovery, with what is a ultimately a ‘doing it for me attitude’. Sarah, after rekindling an old love affair with ex-girlfriend Tammy, divorces her husband and by the end of the series is engaged to Tammy. She is also excluded from school committees, shunned by her friends because of her actions and gives her ex husband a blowjob at a family party (???). Josh is in love with a (much younger) girl who becomes pregnant, then gets an abortion without telling Josh. He then proceeds to creep her the fuck out by stalking her and screaming at her, he then grieves briefly and moves onto his next conquest – Rabbi Raquel. They get together, and within about five minutes Josh is in love again.
Ali goes on a rollercoaster ride of sex, drugs, threeways and eventually has a very odd relationship with a trans-man (unsure of exactly how much of their relationship is real or not), and becomes deeply unhappy about the imminent death of her mother’s boyfriend – Ed. So, there’s a lot going on here. Maura’s ex-wife (Shelley) features in season one as well, revealing to the kids that she has known about Maura’s identity for a very long time. Maura doesn’t have much to do in season one. She wears her beautiful kaftans, moves to a gated condo community and befriends Davina. She has moments of self acceptance, and moments of heartbreaking sadness, but I really wanted for her to have her own storyline in season two. I wanted to see her friendship with Davina develop and grow. I wanted to see her become independent from her horrible selfish children who seem intent on destroying their own lives, and everyone else’s along with them.
I dove into season two with few expectations, mainly just hope that these characters might turn to each other for guidance and not continue to be selfish/irritating human beings. Don’t get me wrong, that’s half the enjoyment of Transparent, watching people who are downright selfish. It’s not always sunny, and you don’t always do the right thing. That is perhaps the mantra of season two however – doing what makes you happy isn’t always the best idea (articulated perfectly by Spencer Kornhaber).
For as much as I loved Transparent’s first season, I couldn’t help but slowly (but actually quickly because I watched it in four days) fall out of love with it. I started seeing issues, things that became so problematic that I didn’t want to watch these people anymore. Still, I kept on. It’s still beautifully shot, there are still moments of genuine emotion and gut-wrenching dialogue (Carrie Brownstein for one) and there are still things to be uncovered. For the most part though, I was disappointed. The narrative arc of season two revolves once again about the three adult-children of the family; Sarah has a manic depressive breakdown after calling her wedding to Tammy off, Josh discovers he has a son whilst simultaneously destroying his relationship with Raquel after she loses their baby and Ali wanders around having weird ‘visions’ of pre WW2 Germany and decides that she is actually queer after meeting a radical feminist.
And Maura? The highlight of season two for me was the conversation between Maura and Davina which sadly results in their friendship being no longer. Maura attempts to give Davina some advice about her lover Sal, to which Davina responds that not everyone has the privilege that Maura has had (meaning financial stability, a supportive family). It was such an important conversation to have on-screen. There is an assumption that all trans people have the same experience, live the same life but we need to be reminded that everyone’s journey is different. Sadly, the result of it means that Davina was almost non-exist in the second half of season two which was a real shame – she was one of the best characters on the show.
The issues with Transparent are certainly there, and in their numbers. Soloway seems to equate the selfish spiralling of the Pfefferman kids to that of Maura’s transition. There’s a lot of arguing about how Maura was selfish – particularly the subplot of allowing Ali not have her Bat Mitzvah because Maura wanted to go to ‘drag camp’. It feels as if Soloway is saying that Ali/Sarah/Josh’s selfishness now is a reaction to Maura’s selfish act of transitioning, but this simply isn’t the case. The Pfefferman family may not all be ‘good’ people, but that doesn’t mean we should feel that a vendetta against Maura is justified. Similarly, when Ali and Sarah take Maura to a ‘wimmins camp’ there is an exchange between Maura and some pretty disgusting TERFS. Maura, Ali and Sarah didn’t realise that the festival is only for ‘women born as women’ and this leads to a bit of altercation whereby Ali almost sides with the TERFS proclaiming that Maura had privilege as a man. Maura briefly tries to explain that she didn’t have privilege because she was pretending to be something she wasn’t her whole life (and I did love line ‘does having a hysterectomy make you not a woman’), but the whole scene comes off slightly in favour of the TERFS, oddly. We feel sorry for Maura, but we are made to feel worse for Ali who is caught in the middle and decides that her older-lady-lover-Lesley is right. I feel like Maura is being shunned and pushed to one side whilst the nice white-cis-women explain everything. It’s unclear what we are supposed to really think about this exchange, and because of that I think the scene is kind of problematic.
Maybe the reason why Maura is an undeveloped character is because Soloway is the child of a trans woman, not a transgender person herself. It’s evident that a lot more time has been spent crafting the trajectories of the ‘broken’ kids that there is little time or energy left for Maura herself. She becomes a vehicle. It’s representative perhaps of Soloway’s own life experiences.
It’s also true that, of course, we hold Transparent up to a higher standard than other TV shows. The choice to represent LGBTQ people on the show means that we are constantly critiquing, more than we would anything else. The thing with Transparent is that it obviously has the capacity to be truly groundbreaking – and you get glimpses of these moments. When you know how good something can be, but it doesn’t make the effort all the time it can be incredibly frustrating to watch.
Transparent is a moving portrait of people who love, who are being loved and people who are just saying the wrong thing all the time. It’s very easy to see ourselves in this show, and to get lost within the natural dialogue and pace of the show. No-one in this show is a shining light of inspiration, and none of them are truly awful (I have my doubts about Josh…joking but not really) and what Soloway does really well is to remind us that we are all just people trying to work our shit out. Transparent’s real issue is that it begins on a level which it just hasn’t managed to maintain. Maura’s been pushed the side of the frame, despite being the most interesting and together person in the whole show in favour of melodramatic scenes between (predominantly) Sarah and any other character in the room with her. Having watched the whole show in less than a week, I felt that was a huge push for more ‘action’ in season two rather than those quiet moments that worked so well in season one. Transparent is a show which yearns for you to keep watching, to absorb yourself fully in the lives of the Pfeffermans, and I hope it hasn’t completely lost it’s way.