Gender and sexuality are fluid things. This is the biggest takeaway from “Transparent,” the miraculous, wonderful, triumphant and best new show of the fall that everyone absolutely needs to be watching. The 10-episode first season made available on Amazon last Friday is incredibly binge-worthy and an astonishing thing to behold. We here at /bent hailed it as one of our most hotly anticipated shows. Well, it holds up and even exceeds the hype and expectation. Simply put, this is a great, GREAT show. I really could go on.
But apart from being exquisite and sophisticated entertainment — an insightful look at a family struck by a life-changing revelation that brings other secrets bubbling to the surface — it’s also a very important show. It’s the most culturally significant show since “Girls,” which brought feminism into popular conversation. Yes, “Orange Is the New Black” was revelatory, bringing us Laverne Cox, who has stood as the singular voice speaking out for the trans community. Now, however, there’s another voice, and it’s Jill Soloway, who’s tying together feminism and trans issues and, beyond that, bringing all genderqueer issues into the mainstream.
The New York Times published a piece on Jill Soloway in August — which revealed Soloway’s own father is a transgender woman, giving her inspiration for the show — and it’s titled “Can Jill Soloway Do Justice to the Trans Movement?” A valid question, considering the immediate response to the release of the pilot, which was met with both praise and backlash from the trans community itself. Well, after binging all 10 episodes, it’s safe to say the answer is a resounding “yes,” and below are the takeaways to prove it.
Needless to say, spoilers abound on the next page, so don’t proceed unless you’ve finished season one.
1. The cold open to Episode 2, “The Letting Go”
The second episode picks up immediately after Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) walks in on his oldest daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker) with Tammy (Melora Hardin), thus outing herself to them. Moments later, Maura explains what’s been going on inside her all her life. “This is me,” she says. Sarah asks if this means her father is going to be dressing up like a woman from here on out. His response: “All my life I’ve been dressing up like a man.”
2. The adult children’s reactions
Perhaps the best thing about this show is the range of reactions from Maura’s three children, the best coming from Sarah down to Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and then Josh (Jay Duplass) who finds out last and not even from Maura directly. While naturally in shock, Sarah is also thrilled by the news. “It’s inspiring. I’m so glad you get to be who you are. That’s what we should all be,” she tells her. Josh is the most taken aback by it and the most hesitant to fully understand it. But even his hesitance never comes from a place of hate or nonacceptance — ignorance, maybe, and confusion. Most interesting is Ali who has a double-layered reaction to the news. Upon Maura’s coming out to her, Ali relishes in it, fascinated by her father’s revelation. “You finally make sense to me,” she says. It’s just too bad she was high as a kite. The next morning, her real reaction hits her, and it lands somewhere between Sarah’s embracing of it and Josh’s unwillingness to accept it.
3. Reactions to being trans, overall
No reaction is perfect, and there’s some crude joking about the pronouns and the he/she of it all, but that’s also what makes it so great. This isn’t meant to be a utopia of acceptance. It’s meant to be as real as can be. But with that, just as Soloway has a team of trans advisers in her writer’s room to keep her from falling into any potentially bad territory, this safety net translates to the screen. Whenever a character comes from a place of hate, there’s another character to keep that in check.
4. Characters’ coming out
The show extends beyond transgender coming-out and deals with other late-in-life coming out moments, as well. First, Sarah falls back in love with her college flame Tammy. When she tells her husband Len (Rob Huebel), he retorts, “You’re not allowed to do this, you know.” To which she responds, “I don’t know how not to.” Likewise, in a later episode, Ali’s best friend Syd (Carrie Brownstein) comes out and tells her she has feelings for her, more than just friends. And finally, Ali explores a relationship with Dale (Ian Harvie), a trans man, whether it’s out of curiosity or her own questioning of where she lands on the genderqueer spectrum. The show acts as a catch-all for late-age coming out, in ways that haven’t really been explored on TV before.
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5. The bathroom scene in Episode 4, “Moppa”
A lot happens in the fourth episode relating to Maura putting her true self into the public eye and her children’s furthering acceptance of that, but most important is what happens at the mall in a women’s restroom. It’s an upsetting scene, and while Sarah doesn’t go about handling the situation in the most reasonable of ways, it’s easy to see where she’s coming from, and it’s something we would certainly want to say in such a situation. And this is all while Ali cowers, embarrassed, inside a stall. The scene opens up the conversation about the importance of gender neutral bathrooms, something Soloway whole-heartedly believes in and practiced on the set during shooting.
6. Alexandra Billings, and others
One of the arguments against “Transparent” was having a cisgender white male playing the lead role of a transgender woman. A fair argument, but it’s still mainstream TV, and Jeffrey Tambor is an actor who fully understands the importance of the role he’s playing and takes it as seriously as any actor could. This has already been proved in Q&As and interviews with Tambor. Best of all, it’s not like there isn’t trans representation on the screen. Maura attends group meetings at the LGBT Center, led by Eleanor, played by transgender performance artist Zackary Drucker, who also serves as one of Soloway’s advisers. In those group circles, and most notably during an episode showcasing a talent contest at the center, trans actors and extras grace the screen. Trans comedian Ian Harvie has a small arc playing Dale, Ali’s love interest, while, perhaps most importantly, Alexandra Billings, the first trans actress ever to appear on TV, plays Maura’s friend and neighbor, Davina. It’s she who delivers one of the season’s most memorable quotes. When Maura’s sitting with her legs spread, Davina pushes her knees together, stating, “Your male privilege is leaking all over the place.” Cisgender white male? Sure. But they’re keenly aware.
7. Those 1994 flashbacks
Following the pilot, every episode jumps back to reveal just how long Maura has identified as a woman. We see how, even in the mid-90s, the trans community was hidden deep in the shadows. It appeared to be just a bunch of men playing dress-up. And for some, including Maura’s friend Mark/Marcy (Bradley Whitford), that’s what it was. It’s here where the show makes the distinction between what it means to be transgender and a transvestite. Even back then, Maura wasn’t just a man who enjoyed dressing like a woman. He was a woman.
8. The entirety of Episode 6, “The Wilderness”
In perhaps the season’s best episode, aptly titled “The Wilderness,” the characters feel a little in the woods about the meaning of gender fluidity. It’s here where Sarah and Tammy explain to their two young children that grandpa is a woman, and what that means; it’s here where Josh grapples with the terminology of what it means to be transgender; and it’s here where Ali gets to know Dale, and therefore, gets to better understand Maura. “You have experienced the world as two genders. You are gender enlightened,” she tells him. It’s also here where Maura delivers the most touching speeches of the season to Len, who has just barged in on dinner and verbally assaults the Pfefferman family. “I’m sorry about the Mort and the Maura and the he and the she. I’m just a person, and you’re just a person, and here we are. And, baby, you need to get in this whirlpool, or you need to get out of it.”
And I feel like this only skims the surface of what “Transparent” has to say. It’s the most important show in years, and the show everyone needs to be watching. Pony up the $100 for that Amazon Prime subscription and join in.