Threading together images of a family idyll, bygone weddings and birthdays captured in the slightly harried, imperfect vernacular of home video, the title sequence of creator Jill Soloway‘s “Transparent” (Amazon) drifts along like a memory, or a dream. So, too, does the series as a whole: in the warm, hazy hues of its flashbacks to the ’80s and ’90s, in the hectic familiarity of the staging and in the ambling dialogue, “Transparent” conjures the texture of a backyard barbecue stored away on VHS, keepsake of the not-so-distant past.
“New Queer Cinema came out of the conjunction of four things: Reagan, AIDS, the invention of camcorders… and cheap rent,” critic B. Ruby Rich said in 2013, reflecting on her landmark 1992 essay for the Village Voice and Sight & Sound. Times have changed, of course, but in alluding to the conditions that made the movement, “Transparent” adapts the New Queer Cinema to a rapidly evolving medium — the serial episodic narrative formerly known as “television” — that recalls the changing aesthetics and political economies of American independent filmmaking at the end of the Cold War. With apologies to Rich, who quails at the New Queer Cinema’s transformation into a “whole new kind of mainstream film,” “Transparent” appears to be the standard bearer for the New Queer Television, a cadre of cultural productions that includes “Looking,” “Orange is the New Black,” “American Horror Story,” “Please Like Me” and others.
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Reflecting on the bracing possibilities represented by the likes of Todd Haynes (“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” “Poison”), Gregg Araki (“The Living End”), Laurie Lynd (“R.S.V.P.”), Jennie Livingston (“Paris Is Burning”), Sadie Benning (“Jollies”), and Su Friedrich (“First Comes Love “), Rich glossed the New Queer Cinema thus:
[T]here are traces in all of them of appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind… irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure. They’re here, they’re queer, get hip to them.
The series discussed here are surely less experimental than Benning’s videography or Friedrich’s intellectual avant-gardism (though Ryan Murphy‘s “American Horror Story” is so thick with appropriation, pastiche and irony it’s practically sticky). But in the context of television they’re radical not only because they feature an increasingly complex and diverse array of LGBT characters. An hour-long women’s prison dramedy on a streaming video website, an anthology genre series with queer obsessions, half-hour “sitcoms” that are just as likely to make you cry: in structure and tone, the New Queer Television is a significant departure from, say, “Will & Grace,” which managed to be groundbreaking in spite of its rather anodyne format and fey clichés.
Sharing irreverence for televisual convention, whether minimalist (“Looking“) or excessive (“AHS”), these series are also, to quote Rich, “full of pleasure,” particularly of the sexual variety. Their frank treatment of queer intimacy is so far removed from 1997’s “The Puppy Episode,” on the short-lived and much-missed “Ellen,” that the Clinton years sometimes seem as distant as the Lavender Scare. Growing up around the turn of the millennium, I never imagined I’d see an interracial gay couple engage in a little ass-play on primetime network television, and yet “How to Get Away with Murder” is a bona fide smash. The sheer variety of sexual and romantic arrangements now visible on television was unthinkable even when I came out, at 19, in 2006, at which point my lodestar was Haynes’ brilliant “Far From Heaven,” an homage to Douglas Sirk that felt all too close to my own fettered suburban upbringing.
As Rich recognized, queer culture has a history, and television is no different. Just as the filmmakers she cited drew on a tradition of subtexts and radical New York art, the New Queer Television is deeply indebted to “Tales of the City,” “Oz,” “Queer as Folk,” “Six Feet Under” and other forebears. What’s “new,” perhaps, as Rich noted with regard to Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” and Araki’s “The Living End,” is a growing desire to investigate queerness in genres usually considered pulpy or lowbrow (melodrama, horror, comedy) without using these forms as a way of passing.
In the New Queer Television, the “historical revisionism” Rich described occurs on the terrain of cultural history, rewriting as coming out stories the masquerades once embraced and repurposed by queer audiences. The gay sidekick becomes the gay star, camp undertones become the explicit subject, the closet opens onto a spot-lit stage. Jessica Lange paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie in a gonzo musical number on a Sirk-influenced horror series called “Freak Show”? If that’s not “Homo Pomo,” as Rich called the New Queer Cinema aesthetic, I’m not sure what is.
The apparent explosion of series engaging queer themes coincides with a major restructuring of the TV business model that bears resemblance to the economic changes accompanying the New Queer Cinema. The industry shakeup Peter Biskind describes in “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film” pried open a space between Hollywood studios and high art experiments that came to be filled, at least in part, by filmmakers such as Haynes, Stephen Frears, Derek Jarman and Sally Potter. Though the profit motive sits uncomfortably alongside progressive ideology, technological innovations (VHS, the Internet) and industry transitions (Hollywood Renaissance, American indies, today’s television) allow for the “cheap rents” Rich noted in 2013, at least metaphorically speaking.
In the present TV landscape — a site of fragmentation, cord-cutting, streaming, bingeing, recording and remaking — one need not be as popular as “NCIS” to succeed. As such, Netflix, Amazon, premium and basic cable channels, and even the broadcast networks appear willing, at least for now, to finance the idiosyncratic, the experimental, the auteurist and the niche. The result is a host of new faces, new styles, new formats and new modes of distribution.
The best new series of the year, and quite possibly the best show on television, “Transparent,” which follows a Los Angeles family after the patriarch (the amazing Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as a trans woman, is hardly “television” at all. I watched all 10 episodes of the funny and tremendously moving first season on my laptop, in one sitting, as a fringe benefit of paying Amazon annually for unlimited two-day shipping.
“There’s bound to be trouble in paradise, even when the party’s just getting going,” Rich wrote in 1992, and indeed the New Queer Television often focuses on white, affluent, cisgender characters, leaving too many un- or underrepresented. Important political issues such as LGBT youth homelessness, workplace discrimination and violent persecution at home and abroad remain little discussed, overwhelmed by portraits of the road to equal marriage. Yet “Transparent,” which Amazon has renewed for a second season, suggests the present’s immense possibilities by drawing us repeatedly into the past. “People led secret lives, and people led very lonely lives,” Maura (Tambor) tells her eldest, Sarah (Amy Landecker), upon coming out. “All my life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”
In a sense, the New Queer Television can count the generation of filmmakers identified by B. Ruby Rich as its foremost progenitor, for when it comes to these series, the mantra of the New Queer Cinema still rings true: they’re here, they’re queer, get hip to them.