You may have noticed Transparent when it won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series (Musical or Comedy) or when Jeffrey Tambor accepted his Golden Globe for Best Actor in the same category and gave his heartfelt thanks to the transgender community, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for your courage, thank you for your inspiration, thank you for your patience. And thank you for letting us be a part of the change.” Maybe you’ve seen all the headlines and rave reviews it’s been snagging since its release a year ago. But if Transparent hasn’t entered your radar yet, then put it on your list, because there’s a reason behind all the hype.
Transparent is an Amazon Studios production, which is the division of Amazon that streams digital content and is emerging into a market that’s dominated by Netflix’s original content (think House of Cards and Orange is the New Black). It stars the versatile Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman (born Morton Pfefferman) who makes the decision to reveal to her family the secret that she’s been keeping for most of her life:Despite filling the role of their dad, she has identified as a female and no longer wants to hide her true self from them. “When I was a kid, ever since I was five, I felt something was not right. And I couldn’t tell anyone about my feminine side. My whole life I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.” Maura reveals her secret to her three adult children, Sarah, Josh, and Ali, who all deal with this information in different ways.
Maura, now retired, had a career as a college professor where she always felt stifled and unable to express any of her real identity. There’s a beautiful flashback scene to Maura’s past as Mort where she locks herself in her office and gingerly pulls out a dress to try it on, only to be interrupted with a knock by one of her students. Later, a scene shows Mort chucking it in a trash bin. The scene highlights how constrained Maura has felt all her life and how far she has come; after revealing to her family, Maura wears the dresses she finds beautiful, indulges in jewelry, and even goes shopping with her daughters and delights in being pampered with make up and beauty products. These smaller moments of struggle and acceptance is perfectly portrayed with the right tenderness and vulnerability by Tambor.
While the heart of the story center around Maura’s transition and journey, it’s her family that gives the show the meat and some of the best moments. But the Pfefferman family is not a feel-good, warm, and open family. All three “adult children” are consumed by their own prejudices, weaknesses, and relationship issues and often treat Maura as an inconvenience rather than a reality. They’re incredibly self-centered and unable to see past themselves, and Maura often struggles to establish understanding with them. The show covers other deeply layered topics through the lives of her children. Sarah the eldest is married and has a husband and children but initiates an affair with her college girlfriend, a “phase” that was dismissed but turns out not to be much more than a phase. Josh has unhealthy relationships based on obsession, one of them being a much older woman who babysat him as a child. Ali lives off of checks from her father and hates where she’s at but can’t seem to do anything about it.
Maura’s kids are almost compulsively unlikeable at times and their self-absorption makes for a world of uncomfortable scenes, but it’s the lack of sugarcoating that makes Transparent powerful. A particularly well-done scene is when Maura and her daughters all go to the bathroom. It captures the prejudice that Maura must deal with from strangers – she is called a pervert and her self-identity is refused by others. But it also shows the difficulty in finding acceptance from her family. While Ali sits in the stall, annoyed by the entire event, Sarah is at least defensive, but both fail to truly attempt to put understand what their father is going through.
An aspect of Transparent that makes it even more amazing is the production force behind it. The show runner Jill Soloway, whose own father came out to her three years ago as transgender, went through great lengths to make the production set inclusive and welcoming. She enacted a “transfirmative action program” favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over cisgender ones. Soloway also hired two transgender consultants to ensure avoiding any insensitivities or ignorance. She wanted to make inclusiveness “more than just a buzz word.” The environment Soloway promoted is a model other shows could truly learn from.
Transparent belongs among a new category of “streaming classics.” It’s content that’s doing television better than anything on the actual TV set. A lot of Transparent’s magic comes from its refusal to shape itself around what a mainstream audience wants and expects and gives them what it needs: honest, candid, and deeply humanizing portraits.