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Seeing Our Selves

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Amazon Studios
Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in a scene from Transparent

After I’d watched all ten half-hour episodes of the first season of Transparent in just two evenings, it occurred to me that, with the exception of Louie, most of the TV series I’d binge-watched—The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Fall, and Spiral, among others—had involved either enormous amounts of violence, ruinous drug addiction, a grisly crime requiring a crack team of British (or French) detectives to solve, or all of the above. So far, Transparent’s body count is zero, unless we add in the erasure (and the effective demise) of Mort Pfefferman, a retired Los Angeles academic and political scientist who, in late middle age, comes out to his three grown children as Maura, the woman he truly is and always was. Its tone is wistfully comic; its suspense—how will the kids react to the fact that Dad, or, as they begin to call him, Moppa, is shopping at the mall in make-up and a dress?—is tempered and low-key. And yet I finished each installment eager to spend more time with the Pfeffermans, whose individual and collective predicaments, and whose familial relationships, seem at once entirely unique and universal.

Since the series became available to Amazon Prime subscribers this fall (the first episode appeared in February), the show has received a great deal of popular attention; the series has already been renewed for a second season. It’s a somewhat unlikely hit, given its lack of dramatic action (a euphemism for bloodshed), its vaguely melancholic register, and the extent to which all of its principal characters seem isolated, rudderless, and lost. Above all is the unlikely fact that it has, at its center, the balding, ponytailed, thickset Mort/Maura, not exactly a wildly attractive exemplar of either gender. One can imagine a generation seeing their experience mirrored (or not) in the HBO series Girls, but most viewers, I’d assume, might hesitate to identify with the sympathetic, appealing, but troubled and maddeningly solipsistic Pfeffermans.

Part of what makes the series so engaging is the pleasure of seeing what gifted actors can do when they are provided with scripts and direction that allow them to create highly complex, interesting characters, as fully nuanced and contradictory as actual human beings. Gaby Hoffmann delivers a typically fearless, even reckless performance as the youngest sibling, Ali, a lost soul blessed and cursed with an excruciatingly high concentration of generosity, desperation, decency, human kindness—and weirdness. Hoffmann’s intensity injects humor and pathos into scenes (including one in which Ali tries and fails miserably to enlist two male bodybuilder roommates in a mini-orgy) that might otherwise remain mocking burlesques. Jay Duplass brings a persuasive mixture of surface charm and deep anxiety to his portrayal of Josh, a successful music producer whose natural confidence and cultivated hipness belie a longing to love and be loved, to understand and transcend the damage done by his longstanding affair with Rita, the family babysitter with whom he began a sexual relationship when he was fifteen. And Amy Landecker is equally convincing as Sarah, whose readiness to torpedo her “perfect” life, to leave her children and her rich husband and reconnect with her college girlfriend seems motivated partly by exhaustion and impatience with the compulsory niceness and the custodial responsibilities of being an older sister.

All three actors deftly convey the wide range of emotions and behaviors that go along with being a sibling: the inside jokes, the familiarity, the affection, the knowledge of how to irritate and comfort one another (there’s a moving scene in which Ali, having just heard that Josh’s girlfriend has had an abortion, cajoles him into joining her in a sweet, awkward dance), and the puppy-like competition for sustenance and parental attention. For the Pfeffermans, this rivalry is exacerbated by Mort’s habit—a tic that survives his transition to Maura—of telling each of his children something (mostly having to do with money) and making them promise not to tell the others.

The supporting cast is similarly virtuosic. As Mort’s ex-wife Shelly, Judith Light communicates the sharpness and the resilience of a quick-witted, soft-hearted woman slightly hardened and concealed beneath the persona of the daffy grand-dame she’s developed for self-protection. Katherine Hahn enters the series, partway through, as Raquel, a compassionate, intelligent, and (why should this surprise us?) sexy rabbi whom we want to warn against getting involved with Josh even as we are fervently hoping that their romance might work out. And Carrie Brownstein, as Ali’s best friend Syd, persuades us—along with Ali—that she genuinely believes there is nothing wrong in having and concealing a casual affair with Ali’s brother.

But ultimately everything turns on Jeffrey Tambor’s stellar turn as Maura, whose thrilled, tentative forays into femininity excite our protectiveness even as her failings as a parent become increasingly clear. As Maura edges, step by step, into her new life, her terror of the unknown is mediated by a girlish delight in the exterior trappings of womanhood; in one scene, we witness her near ecstatic introduction to the rituals of the department-store cosmetics counter.

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Amazon Studios
A scene from Transparent

As we come to realize, the Pfeffermans’ problems go beyond gender confusion and a familial predilection for secrecy. The question they can’t seem to answer is a more basic and common one: How much should—and can—each individual give up for the good of others? Transparent floats the radical idea (which we may have observed on our own) that love, real love, can coexist with crippling selfishness and self-involvement. In the first episode, when Mort tries and fails to tell his kids about his decision, and they cannot or will not hear him, he says that he cannot believe he raised three people so unable to see beyond themselves. But the more we learn about Mort and Shelly, the more we’re inclined to think that self-centeredness may be an inherited trait. When her kids arrive at her apartment, bringing her favorite take-out, Shelly exclaims, “Look how much my children love me!” And there’s a scathing flashback in which Mort is so eager to attend a rural retreat where he will be able to dress as Maura that he accedes with appalling haste to thirteen-year-old Ali’s semi-serious child’s suggestion that her parents cancel her bat mitzvah.

Created by writer/director Jill Soloway, whose own father became a woman late in life, the show is especially sensitive to (and informative about) issues of gender. When Sarah tries to prevent Ali from “outing” their father to Josh, who has not yet been told the startling news, and when she informs her siblings that the correct term for Moppa is “trans,” her lines seem as if they might have been suggested or influenced by one of the many trans crew members who were hired to work on the series. When Maura is ejected from a ladies’ room at the mall by outraged strangers, it reminds us that (as a recent New Yorker article explained) public bathrooms and all-female music festivals have become the new battlegrounds in the war between feminists and male-to-female transsexuals over what it means to be a woman.

Watching Mort turn into Maura—figuring out how to walk and talk, how to tilt her head and fiddle with her hair—makes us think again about how much of our behavior is hormonally determined and how much is learned and practiced: how much is theater. Tambor’s transformation recalls Felicity Huffman’s extraordinary performance as Bree, the male-to female heroine of the 2005 road-trip film TransAmerica. What a challenge and how much fun it must be for actors to impersonate characters who must learn to impersonate someone else, someone whom they have long recognized as their true self.

The series gets so much right that when it doesn’t, we notice. Perhaps its most implausible aspect is the response (or lack of response) of Sarah’s two young children to the fact that Mom has left Dad for Tammy. Watching Sarah and her offspring, one might conclude that the most critical qualifications for parenthood are the ability to pick up one’s children after school on time, and a knack for arranging entertaining play-dates. The children seem to vanish, rather conveniently, from Sarah’s consciousness, reappearing only when necessary; when, for example, we are invited to observe their response to Grandpa’s new wardrobe and hairstyle. And at times one can’t help wishing that the writers would search the script for “secret” and “family secret” and delete all the results; surely most viewers are savvy enough to understand how much concealment has hurt the family without the frequent promptings, which tend to flatten out, rather than deepen or illuminate, our sense of who these people are.

But these hesitations and criticisms are minor. Despite one’s reservations about Amazon and its dark plans for writers and publishers, we can be thankful that Transparent exists. What a joy and a relief it is to be drawn into a mystery—the mystery of character, the mystery of gender, the mystery of family love—that is so far beyond the provenance and the expertise of the crime-scene squad and the forensic pathologists.