“It just means we all have to start over,” says one of the daughters halfway through the debut season of Amazon’s tender and gentle Transparent, a drama centering on a Los Angeles family who evaluate their lives after their father comes out as a transgendered woman.
The ideas of gender, femininity and sex dominate Transparent’s 10 episodes. The bitchy wailing from more conservative viewers can almost be heard immediately while watching Transparent’s overt sexuality being played out on screen—“No one has that much sex! The content is too graphic!” While Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman is the center of this great, sunny series, almost all of the members of the Pfefferman clan are searching for identity in one way or another. Self-discovery and self-proclamation may lead to bad decisions.
The process of coming out as transgender is an incredibly personal thing, and the first few episodes focus on Maura coming out to her three grown children: unhappily married/hungry Sarah (Amy Landecker), image conscious (and newly jobless) record producer Josh (Jay Duplass), and listless, daddy’s girl Ali (Gaby Hoffman). Their mother, Shelly, is played by Judith Light, and she lives with her sick second husband, Ed. In a flashback, Shelly argues with her husband (back when he was Mort), and she exclaims, “I want you to be a man!” She says this before she is even aware of what Mort is hiding from her, and the singular line resonates for the rest of that episode.
When Maura begins her coming our process, she first tells Sarah, and she immediately is in his corner. Ali discovers her father’s secret while tripping on an acid-like drug and affectionately begins calling her “moppa.” Maura has the most trouble coming out to Josh, but the three Pfefferman children are a tight-knit trio. They get together and smoke pot and talk about their parents and how Maura is selling their childhood home—a sprawling, open Palisades property. Their lives are all spinning out of control. Sarah begins having an affair with the lesbian that got away, Tammy, and she’s imbued with a strong cockiness by Melora Hardin. Josh gets one of his most promising acts pregnant even though she doesn’t really want anything that serious. She has an abortion without telling him. Ali still takes checks from her father and seemingly latches on to anyone who can make her feel good.
Transparent is wise to begin personal and work its way out. Connecting with Maura is very easy; Tambor is quiet and shy and his fear is a reminder that we can go through extreme life changes at any point in our lives. That sort of fear never really leaves us. Maura doesn’t face any adversity from the outside world until the third or fourth episode when a loud soccer mom protests to Maura using the women’s room in a shopping mall. He then has to stand up to Sarah’s estranged husband, and Maura expresses the main theme of the entire show: “I’m just a person…and you’re just a person.” The notion that everyone has the right to be happy with themselves gently hangs over every episode.
This is Tambor’s opus. He’s an actor whose career has spanned decades, but he’s allowed to be more vulnerable and open as Maura. Her interaction with every character is so breathtakingly varied—from his eventual disappointment in Ali to his early days of cross dressing and cavorting with his partner in crime played by Bradley Whitford. There is an episode told entirely in flashback where we get to see Maura’s discovery of the open trans world at an outdoor camp. Michaela Watkins plays an unusually supportive wife of another camper, and she’s never looked to effortlessly beautiful.
The Pfefferman children also support Tambor just as much as they support their father. Sarah wants her father to know how much she is behind him, and she doesn’t showboat it. She simply wants to be there. Duplass’ Josh is frustrating in his stubbornness, but his romance with a female rabbi (Kathryn Hahn) makes you really start to like him. Ali reminds everyone how underused Gaby Hoffman really is. She’s been coming around a lot more lately, but she is like a cross between Lena Dunham and Jenny Slate. Ali is still looking for her own path, but she doesn’t seem to be concerned if time is running out. As Shelly, one might think that Light is wasted. She barely interacts with her children until the second half of the season, but she delivers a monologue about feeling wanted that puts you right in her corner.
The opening credits are these fuzzy memories committed to home video recordings. There are weddings and parties, but it’s kind of a time capsule of revealed public femininity. There is a boy playing out with a bikini top on and we also see men in dresses dancing with each other. As I learn more about the transgender community, I keep getting told that every single experience is completely different. There is no one blanket story or path that is truly identical, and it is even reinforced by the opening credits. No one’s memories are the same and neither is everyone’s future.
Transparent wasn’t solely created to teach. It’s a warm series that makes you laugh—you just might learn to be more tolerant and accepting along the way.