Review of Amazon Studio’s series Transparent for Our Family Coalition
The deep pathos about not living an authentic life is made very concrete with the double entendre of the word “transparent” in Jill Soloway’s new comedy-drama, Transparent, on Amazon. The theme of secrets and their long-lasting emotional and psychological scars are revealed through clever dialogue and plot structure in the show through the Pfefferman family. The central question of what happens when you parent as not an authentic and transparent parent while raising children drives most of the drama and backstories.
The series is structured around Mort Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor) social transition into Maura at age 69 and backstories—as family members recall different experiences of their understandings—which center around events that occur mostly between 1985 and 1994, and the revelations of the long-lasting damage his closeted transgender identity wrought on his family. Her whole life of having been pretending to be a man and a father forces his children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ally (Gaby Hoffman), to re-question their childhood and adult lives in ways that are fundamentally transformational.
The pilot episode begins with Pfefferman’s children talking about how daddy has summoned all of them, and how they are all worried that she has cancer. Through comedic twists and turns of the trials and tribulations of modern lives and the limitations of each child’s personalities, they are finally gathered at Mort’s Palisades home. She announces she is going to sell the house. Mort cries, “I am done with the house!” We hear a one-way telephone conversation later that evening from Mort saying he couldn’t tell the children.
The following day at the Los Angeles LGBT Center you hear Jeffrey Tambor’s voice, the camera pans to a group session and slowly reveals Mort as Maura, and the audience understands that the previous evening was meant to be the big revelation about Maura’s transgender confession. Maura tells the group, “I don’t understand how I raised three selfish kids who can’t see beyond themselves.” This statement and the group session position the audience as an ally with Maura in her transgender social transformation throughout the series.
The series weaves in and out of backstories and recollections to great effect for the mystery of how the children become the way they do doesn’t become revealed until the final episode. This is great storytelling and the sense of how memory functions in repression in that it takes multiple attempts to uncover deep, family secrets. The Pfefferman family system created a dysfunctional system in which Maura has attempted to suppress her authentic gender identity by playing the ideal husband, which is symbolized by her beautiful Palisades home. The impact on her marriage and on her neglected wife, the time spent away from family, and the lack of authoritative parental guidance during the critical teenage years, however, is illustrated throughout the series without any clear resolution until the finale.
As with Solloway’s Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara her examination of the American family is where the series shines at its best and most heart wrenching. It is also where it made me cringe the most as a member of the transgender community. (I know there are criticisms against Solloway for hiring a cisgender actor to portray Mort and not a transgender actor. Those aside, Solloway did hire transgender actors and consultants for the series, and for that I applaud her.) I watched the metamorphosis of Mort into Maura and a lot of her self-loathing and discomfort about the female gait and posture became more natural and accepting over the series. I wish that it were a more happy narrative of having a transgender parent, but I suppose this is where Solloway was brave in providing a cautionary tale. The viewer is meant to understand that if one is able to be one’s authentic self in term’s of gender identity and by living your best life you provide a role model for your children that is transparent, honest, and authentic. We need to have more authentic and explicit conversations with our children about race, class, family, gender and sexuality. I hope for this new generation of transgender and gender expansive people protected by law and a discourse promoting more civility and respect that the need for secrecy and pain that drove Maura inside is no longer required. We can celebrate all of our diversity-race, gender, sexuality, family, class, ability-in this big “whirlpool”-together.
By Sandra S. Collins, Ph.D.
Executive Director and Founder of Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp and Assistant Professor of East Asian History, California State University, Chico