I love Transparent. I’ve been obsessed with the show since it premiered, even while my brother (a trans man) showed no interest in it and was generally annoyed that it existed. In fact, most of my friends that are trans or gender non-conforming rolled their eyes at Transparent upon its premiere. The casting of Jeffrey Tambor was enough to turn them off and the centering of privileged white people was just bothersome enough for them to ignore the series entirely. These are completely understandable gripes. I’m not the sort of person that pushes others to watch things they’re uncomfortable with because “art is art”. That is simply not true. What is transcendent to one viewer can be considered short-sighted and missable by another. (Look no further than this year’s polarizing reception of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! for evidence of that.)
I always knew that my position as a cis woman afforded me the luxury of approaching Transparent from a strictly narrative perspective. I knew right out of the gate that I was not being represented and I was fine with that. However, I was never fine with upsetting my friends, so I made a habit of never gushing about it. I think I even made a conscious decision never to write about it, because I am neither trans nor Jewish, so my take on such a personal show would lack emotional resonance.
And Transparent is a show about emotions; raw, messy and often cruel ones. The interesting thing about transparent is how these emotions are unraveling during a complicated upheaval of a family’s social structure. They’re learning about gender, sexuality, pronouns, feminism and intersectionality while going through a massive family change. Watching the show, I enjoyed delving into the psyches of the Pfeffermans and using their experience to inform as well as entertain myself.
I find it very difficult to describe Transparent in terms of plot; tracking the emotional journeys of each character makes much more sense. The show is all about growth and change; the beauty of it, the absence of it, the complications of committing to change and all the strange pitstops in one’s emotional journey. Viewers can judge the show by how far the characters have come or if they just keep making the same mistakes over and over.
The journey of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) began with so much promise, but quickly began fizzling out by season three. Transparent begins with Maura “coming out” as a woman. The first season of the show is dedicated to her telling the family and the family in turn trying to come to come to terms with having two mothers. Despite the focus on the children, it is Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) that has the second-most compelling story (but the show sets that aside until season 3). Instead, we are primarily treated to Maura’s bratty children Sarah, Josh and Ali exploring their sexuality and romantic prospects. The weakest link of the show is Sarah (Amy Landecker), who goes from partner to partner, trying to fuck her way to emotional understanding. It rarely works out for her. There are many times where I wished that her sexual exploits were shaved down so that we could spend time with Maura.
Maura discovering her identity and getting to know other trans women (who are actually played by trans actresses) was the best part of the show, in the beginning. Devina (Alexandra Billings) and Shea (Trace Lysette) are standout characters that bring a richness and authenticity to Maura’s story, just by virtue of being there and living their truth. Devina’s HIV-positive status and unsteady relationships with her partner Sal (Ray Abruzzo) is a compelling storyline that deserved more attention. (Shea gets a standout episode in season 3’s “The Open Road” that would have garnered Emmys buzz if we lived in a more just world.)
Maura’s life journey was further enriched by season 2, which saw the show delving deep into the family’s Jewish history and the turmoil of the Holocaust. We learn that Maura had a trans aunt, Gittel (Hari Nef), who was left behind when the family fled the Nazis. Throughout season 2, the historical flashbacks coincided with the present day scenes, comparing and contrasting the Pfefferman’s past struggles with their new ones. The inclusion of Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) as a straight man to the family dynamic added a new dimension to the show by revealing how the Pfeffermans (as a family unit) can blow up other people’s lives as well as their own. It was a heartbreaking, beautiful and poetic season of television.
Season 3 is when Transparent began to show its cracks. Though the season opener (“Elizah”) was a standout, by the next episode the narrative began to come apart at the seams. The show that began as a character study began to look like a regular sitcom centered on wacky plots. Maura’s arc is mostly about her desire to have plastic surgery and how her age is a barrier to that. Everyone else is ignoring their problems to pursue projects. Sarah wants to be more involved at the temple. Shelly wants to do a one-woman show. Ali has discovered intersectionality.
The stories with the most meat are Maura’s and Shelly’s, but they don’t reach an emotional climax until episode 8 of that season (“If I Were a Bell”). Flashbacks reveal that Shelly was sexually assaulted by her music teacher and that trauma crushed her emotionally for the rest of her life. Other flashbacks within the season reveal that her courtship with Maura was mostly a secret, revealing Shelly’s history with low self-esteem. We also see flashbacks of a young Maura, dealing with her femininity and the disapproval of her family. With these flashbacks we see Maura and Shelly’s separate struggles and how unhealthy their relationship was at the outset. These revelations are the backbone of the season. Shelly’s neediness, OCD and depression all make sense by the end of season 3. A season with a promising start became weak in the middle, ends strong with a tearjerking musical performance by Shelly.
Season 4 doesn’t really build on the emotional momentum of season 3. The trip to Israel leads to a lot of dramatic blow-up moments for the family, but at this point the series began to feel a bit self-indulgent. Shelly’s history of assault is improperly handled. The reveal that the Pfefferman patriarch was still alive didn’t pack the emotional punch it should have. Flashbacks may have bolstered that narrative, but they were surprisingly under-utilized. The series began to feel like it was meandering, with the most significant family revelation being Ali’s newfound questioning of her gender identity. By the end of the season, Ali has decided to live in Palestine and the rest of the Pfeffermans return to their lives. The standout storyline of the season delves into the backstory of Devina, who is mostly isolated from the main narrative. We see her earlier years as a drag performer and young lover to an older, wealthy, HIV-positive man. Her story is beautiful, but as usual, the show is juggling too much to give her narrative the breathing room it deserves. When all the episodes were over and the final season credits rolled, I found myself surprisingly uninterested in another season of the show. And I wasn’t the only one.
Now, with Tambor’s exit from the show amid sexual harassment allegations, I believe the show should just end. Transparent started to lose interest in Maura back in season 3, and she is very underutilized and underdeveloped in season 4. It feels as if the story is no longer about her and that it shouldn’t be. Any further incarnation of Transparent would probably need to focus on Ali’s gender identity journey to maintain any semblance of normalcy in the narrative, and be worthy of the title. But where would that leave Maura’s friends? How could the show justify continuing to tell stories about these trans women without Maura as a story link? On a character level, do we even want these women to have to deal with the Pfeffermans any longer? I for one would like more for them. But I don’t how that could be possible.
There is no mistaking the fact that the show is now tainted, or perhaps always was. The women Tambor “allegedly” harassed are trans women (Lysette and his former assistant Van Barnes). Tambor is a cis man who was afforded the privilege to play a trans woman, and he abused that privilege by harassing the trans woman that made space for him to play this role (and win awards for it). He is a man in a long line of men who portray trans women in film and television without empathy or understanding for trans women in real life. This is inexcusable and has caste a permanent blight on the show that it arguably deserves for having the gall to cast Tambor in the first place. I did not watch Transparent for Tambor, I watched it for everything and everyone around him. The show never really needed him to begin with. As much as I love Transparent, there is no denying that none of this would have happened if creator Jill Soloway had cast a trans woman as the lead in the first place. It is the tragic error that was a barrier for trans audiences to embrace the “radical” show.
There is nothing radical about the status quo. And for that reason, Transparent should end and make space for trans narratives that are more inclusive and less short-sighted. Van Barnes, Trace Lysette, Alexandra Billings, Hari Nef, Alexandra Grey, Our Lady J and all the other trans women and men who lent their talent to the show deserve better.
And if, despite my plea, that the show continues, I have one word of advice:
Give the runtime to the trans characters. Let the cis folks ride in the backseat.