Commentary

Transparent: The Mommas And The Poppas

Although I am an Amazon Prime subscriber of long standing, I am spiritually in solidarity with my friends in publishing who boycott the drone-happy company for its brutal, some say monopolistic, business tactics when it comes to selling books.

So I justified checking out “Transparent,” the new TV series now streaming on Amazon Prime, the way a PETA-person might defend wearing vintage fur, on the theory that those pelts were killed a long time ago.

And by the way, my engaging in that deluded, preposterously self-indulgent reasoning is just the kind of guilty liberal thought process that creator Jill Soloway skewers so deliciously in this fresh and touching new series. Set in L.A., with a Silver Lake-y kind of feeling, “Transparent”’s pilot made its streaming debut on Amazon Prime on Sept. 26th.  And all 10 episodes of the first season are now available for your binge-watching pleasure.

Moreover, the idea that a business, or person, can be more than one thing simultaneously -- sincere and hypocritical, hero and antihero -- is also part of the DNA of this beautifully written and acted show. (Even the dissolves are gorgeous. The musical choices are inspired, too. )

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First, there’s the title, suggesting everything trans: transgressive, transgender, transitional, transparency. In this case, the word is used literally. It’s about a respected Poli Sci professor and divorced dad, Mort Pfefferman, (a bit of a cartoon name) who at age 70 has decided to transition into womanhood, and needs to tell his ex-wife and each of his three grown kids about his choice. So this formerly distant dad decides she needs her family more than ever, and now, like a Mother Lioness, wants to gather her cubs close. In so doing, she’s literally becoming a trans-parent.

Certainly, the subject of LBGT awareness and rights is much in the news and our culture. There’ve been several movies and TV shows featuring trans characters lately; the real breakout star is Laverne Cox, a trans actress, on “Orange is the New Black.”

Still, the concept is ripe for cliché, caricature and/or Bruce Jenner jokes. (I can’t resist saying that Mort sports a similar tiny ponytail while in male drag.)

ButSoloway, a writer on “Six Feet Under” and “The United States of Tara,” tackles the issue of “coming out,” and its huge ripple effects, with great maturity and nuance.  Known as Hollywood’s official go-to person for the subjects of Jews, feminism, gender confusion, and sex, she has mentioned in interviews that her own father came out as transgender in 2011, although she has not revealed many details.

Her knowingness shows.  More than a drama about gender transitioning, “Transparent”is a sometimes-comic story of family neurosis. Mostly, it demonstrates the effects that certain parental behaviors (keeping secrets, turning a blind eye, playing favorites, checking out) have on the next generation. “How did I raise three such selfish kids?” Maura asks her support group at one point.  The answer is self-evident. (But the group leader responds with, “Thank you for being vulnerable with us.”)

Just as all human sexuality is fluid and exists on a scale, so, too does a sense of entitlement and jerkishness, as we learn from watching this family.

Mort/Maura is played by actor Jeffrey Tambor (described in some articles as  "a straight, cis man," which is the community's term for someone non-trans) --  a decision that could also kick up a stir in the trans community. As numero uno second banana Hank Kingsley on “The Larry Sanders Show,” Tambor was genius; he also showed tremendous comedy chops as the orange-wearing Bluth patriarch on “Arrested Development.” 

But this is Tambor’s greatest role to date. No one could play Maura more hauntingly and convincingly. When she gets her face done at a make-up counter at the Beverly Center (the salesperson says, “You mean you’ve gotten through your whole life not knowing where your T-Zone is?”), Maura is genuinely startled. After getting some face cream applied, she responds, earnestly, looking into a hand mirror, “The peptides are working!”

In fact, the entire cast is spectacular.  The three kids are played by Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass, each with his or her own brand of dead-on self-absorption and annoyingness. As Shelley, the ex-wife, Judith Light is also a treat. (Although to me, a member of the tribe, her constant cutesy Yiddishisms, like saying, “I gotta go pish,” gets cloying.) Otherwise, the dialogue is pitch-perfect.

The oldest daughter’s lesbian sometime-girlfriend Tammy (the brilliant Melora Hardin, who played the former boss and betrayed lover of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on “The Office”) is perhaps the least likable character. Without giving away plot points, she transforms the Pfefferman family home, an architectural gem of the ‘70s, with awful taste, and brags about getting rad ideas about “mindfulness” from Real Simple.

Joshy, the middle child and only son, is no picnic, either. He’s a music producer and serial womanizer, but acts as childish as his name and constant cereal-eating would convey. In a wonderful comic scene, he ends up asking a very young Twiggy look-alike, a singer in a ‘60s cover band he created called “Glitterish,” to marry him, using his Aunt Lily’s pearl ring. When he gives the platinum blonde the bauble’s back story, she responds,  “No girl wants to get proposed to with a ring that came from the Holocaust.”

Ali, the youngest, is touchingly performed by Gaby Hoffmann as a character similar to the deluded narcissistic sister of Adam whom she plays on Girls. That includes the signature full pubic nudity moment. (Warning: The content throughout is full of graphic sex and nudity.)  But speaking of guilty, liberal, overly analytical and cringeworthy thinking, a drugged-out Ali says to an Armenian Uber cabdriver, “It’s so nice that you go all the way to Costco to buy these candies, and I am so sorry about the Armenian genocide!” He later tells her, “Please give me five stars.”

My one cavil with the series is all of the shopping, ordering out, and big houses-style upper-middle-class privilege afforded to this crew, when no one seems to do much work.

Other than that, I’d give it five stars. I can’t wait for the second season.

And by the way, for anyone with similar ambivalence about filling the corporate coffers of Amazon Prime, you can apparently go to the site and sign up to get a free month’s subscription. That leaves plenty of time to binge-watch away and appease your conscience.

Let me know what you think.

8 comments about "Transparent: The Mommas And The Poppas".
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  1. Jo Duran from BOM, October 3, 2014 at 10:47 p.m.

    Oy! Free month, eh? Must resist! Darn you, Ms. B! Umm, Wolek is allowed to get away with saying: "I gotta go pish." #cis

  2. Jo Duran from BOM, October 3, 2014 at 10:53 p.m.

    Forgot. FYI. http://www.guidetogender.com/get/

  3. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis, October 4, 2014 at 1:54 a.m.

    This is where the east coast culture (and some of LA) faces a huge gap. Those who were/are raised in the Northwest, such as me, (including everything north of LA), have no clue or comprehension of what is going on here or any empathy for the story lines. To be honest, it's why I didn't like or care about shows like The Sopranos. Their lives were far too removed from mine and they all seemed like caricatures.

  4. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, October 4, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

    If Pfefferman married Salzman, I would definitely watch. Things do change over the years, though. When I lived in L.A. in the 60s, Silverlake wasn't considered a big deal neighborhood. Lots of cheap rentals almost as cheap as E.Turk in the East Village. But thanks for the heads up on the show.

  5. Jim English from The Met Museum, October 5, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

    "Father Knows Best" redux? (Sorry Barbara, still can't shake those loving family sitcoms I grew up on.) Still I think I'd prefer a trans lioness mom to a distant dad. Love your kids. Support your kids. Take whatever means necessary to be a better parent.

  6. Twilla Duncan from Duncan Produces, October 5, 2014 at 12:27 p.m.

    What a complicated relationship story! I might be tempted except for the brutal way Bezos is treating the Hachette authors. It starts with one and will move on. I can't support that.

  7. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, October 5, 2014 at 8:44 p.m.

    Jim-- yes, a trans lioness! but we see as the series progresses that he wants to ground himself in his family, but they need grounding more than he does. It seems particularly difficult for his son to accept. One of the trans friends tells him that most trans people are no longer speaking to their families in 5 years. Sad state!

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 9, 2014 at 9:51 a.m.

    American Horror Story. Why ? "More matter. Less art." It sounds like Transparent has the bones, but more shows is a challenge.

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