**Spoilers ahead** By now, you may have had time to watch all or at least start Jill Soloway’s fantastic Amazon series “Transparent,” the story of a complicated yet relatable Los Angeles family. While the show is pitched as Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) coming out story, it’s also very much about her three children and their personal journeys of love, sex, intimacy and identity. The Pfefferman family has an easy and close rapport, but secrets abound just below the surface. Slacker Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), housewife Sarah (Amy Landecker) and hipster music exec Josh (Jay Duplass) all lead very different but very intertwined lives, each one independent and co-dependent.
Soloway has recently spoken about her own parent coming out as trans, which not only clearly informs the story but also the warm tone and inclusive approach of the series. The consultants who helped the creator accurately represent the trans experience were also invaluable to the result, with Soloway recently telling NPR, “the world knows so little about being trans, and I know very little about being trans —I just know what it’s like to be the child of a trans person. But there’s so little trans representation [and] so few trans people who are creating content, so we really depend on the trans community to help us get it right.” There are a number of trans actors in “Transparent,” including the fantastic Alexandra Billings who plays Maura’s friend and neighbor Davina, a shepherd of sorts into the LGBT world.
When Mort/Maura’s initial coming out is thwarted by sibling squabbling, she changes the subject by announcing the sale of their childhood home, a spectacular midcentury Pacific Palisades pad that practically serves as its own character in the series. The possible sale sets off more infighting among the siblings who each feel that they deserve the place (or the resulting profits—Josh says he’s been “Zillowing the fuck out of this place”), and as Maura moves out into a gay friendly West Hollywood apartment building, the transition unearths memories that the family had long ago brushed aside.
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Sarah, the oldest sibling, is the first to discover Maura’s true identity, quite by accident. After running into her college girlfriend, Tammy (Melora Hardin) at their kids’ school, she brings her to the house to see if she has any design advice, and the two end up rekindling their flame. Maura walks in on them making out, and both father and daughter are unintentionally outed to each other. It seems as though Sarah takes inspiration from her father’s coming out, and in short order, Sarah leaves her husband Len (Rob Huebel), convinces Tammy to break up with her wife, and the two move into the Palisades pad with Tammy’s ex-stepdaughter, teenage Bianca (Kiersey Clemons) showing up for the summer. It’s Sarah’s mid-life crisis/lesbian/pot-feuled paradise, and she takes to it like a duck to water, though she soon realizes that sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the queer side.
It’s tougher for Maura to come out to Josh, a near manic dynamo juggling the many women whose attention and devotion he feeds on. He starts out professing his love to Kaya (Allison Sudol), the singer of the band he manages, Glitterish, who is too focused on her career to get caught up in Josh’s domestic fantasies (Sudol is perfectly pitched in her performance of a young, vapid LA musician). He’s also romancing Rita, a mysterious older woman with whom he seeks solace in times of need. It’s slowly revealed that Josh had a relationship with Rita when she was their babysitter and he was a teen, and when Syd (Carrie Brownstein), Ali’s best friend and one of Josh’s conquests, informs him just how creepy and um, illegal, their relationship was, it throws his behavior into stark relief.
This moment is coupled with his father’s transition, a fact that is communicated to him by his sisters over Bloody Marys at an old school restaurant near their mother Shelley’s (Judith Light) condo. She’s married to Ed, who is suffering from aphasia and has lost the ability to speak. He wanders off and the kids go to look for him, but end up getting drunk and informing Josh of their father’s new identity. When they return to the condo, without Ed but completely hammered, Shelley is entertaining Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), and suddenly Josh finds someone neutral whom he can turn to in this turbulent time. Of course he falls in love with her and it would be great if he could just manage to not fuck this one up (which he kind of does, several times).
Duplass pulls off a very complicated performance in his portrayal of Josh, managing to be both insufferable and lovable at the same time. Soloway often shoots him from above, from the point of view of one of his girlfriends, framing his face so that he is looking up into the camera all puppy-dog eyed. It’s hard not to fall in love a little bit with Josh, even when he’s being a complete fool, or asshole, or fucking up again and again. This is true of both Sarah and Ali too, who are as endearing as they can be frustrating.
Ali is following a similar journey to that of the rest of her family. She’s unemployed, relying on her father’s financial support, and trying to find herself. First, she starts to explore her kinkier side with a muscle-bound trainer she meets in the park. After a failed ecstasy-fueled threesome with him and his roommate (and possibly the most accurate L.A. Uber scene ever), Maura comes out to Ali, who in her drug-induced state, takes the news euphorically. That doesn’t quite translate the next day, but the portmanteau “Moppa” is born, and it sticks.
Ali then turns to a community college gender studies program, paid for by Moppa. Soloway cameos as an over- the-top feminist professor, and during class, Ali spies a bearded, flannel-shirted TA Dale (a fantastic Ian Harvie), and is surprised to discover that he is also trans. In pursuing him, Ali descends deep into a projected fantasy, dressing up in high-femme finery (using ‘70s Dolly Parton as a template), imagining her new trans boyfriend as a true retro mountain man. The fantasy is quickly, rudely, and hilariously lost, and Ali is forced to confront her own abdication of the realities of her life and that she might be chasing people for the wrong reasons.
Ali’s break with her fantasy culminates at a Trans Got Talent show at the LGBT center that Maura is performing in with Davina. This all goes down in Episode 7, “Symbolic Exemplar,” and it just might be the best episode of the season, the tone switching on a dime from funny to tragic to rueful and back again. The balance is masterfully articulated in the scene where Maura and Davina perform “Somebody That I Used To Know” to a packed audience, including a completely stoned Sarah, a freaked out Josh, and Ali on her sex fantasy date. The three siblings can’t handle seeing their formerly frumpy professor father earnestly singing a duet in his fancy drag, and succumb to a brutal case of the church giggles before beating a quick exit. When Maura looks out into the audience, all she can see are the empty seats carefully labeled “Reserved VIP Pfefferman,” and it’s absolutely heartbreaking, particularly coupled with the song choice.
After the talent show, Maura starts to realize that Davina may have been right that the journey they are on may separate them from their misunderstanding families. But the Pfefferman clan isn’t like the rest. They are too involved with each other to pull apart. Maura’s journey is marked with highs and lows, acceptance from fiercely loyal Sarah and attempts at understanding from Josh and Ali, and she desperately needs them during this moment of metamorphosis. She’s 70 years old, starting a new life, living with party hardy gays many years her junior, and learning how to be a woman. It’s not an easy process, and she deals with loathing from inside and out. Doing what she’s doing takes a tremendous amount of courage, which contributes to the gut-wrenching moment when her kids aren’t there.
After the devastation of “Symbolic Exemplar,” Episode 8 “Best New Girl” takes place entirely in flashback, a few of which have been peppered throughout the episodes until now. Mort and Mark (Bradley Whitford), who met perusing trans magazines and forged a friendship based on their shared secret, head off to cross-dressing camp after Ali cancels her bat mitzvah. With Dad away, Shelley runs off to her friend’s house for wine and kvetching, Josh and Rita head off for their escapades, and Sarah ditches for a protest up north. Which leaves Ali to hitch a ride to the beach and an afternoon frolicking with a surprisingly noble drifter-type, played by a mutton-chopped James Frecheville.
At cross-dressing camp, Mort/Maura and Mark/Marcy quickly befriend Connie (Micaela Watkins), the wife of one of the fellow cross-dressers, and Mort is inspired by how she has come to understand and accept her husband’s non-traditional desires. While he’s shared some of his proclivities with Shelley, it seems that maybe he could disclose even more. He also realizes that many of these transvestites are just men who dress as women and who want to be men, not men who want to be women. This is a point of contention between he and Mark, who easily code-switches between male and female, and uses cross-dressing as an outlet. It must be said that Whitford is spectacular in this role. This camping trip precipitates the break in the Pfefferman clan, and comes back to haunt the family during the last episodes of the season.
The series draws to a close by saying goodbye to some loved ones and welcoming new ones. Ed passes away, and the family comes together to remember him. Rita informs Josh about the existence of their son, whom they gave up for adoption, and who is in California all the way from Kansas. Josh’s relationship with Raquel, though seemingly great, goes down the tubes in an instant due to a frank conversation Raquel has with Ali, and he is thrown by the new person in his life who isn’t a romantic prospect.
Ali and Maura have a blow out over the bat mitzvah, cross-dressing camp, and money, in a devastating scene between Tambor and Hoffmann, two actors completely on top of their game at this moment. One thing Tambor does so well as Maura, though he is perfectly lovely and matriarchal, is demonstrate how she is still their father, using a strict and powerful “Dad voice” in these moments of conflict. Though people change and evolve, the relationships always stay the same, for better or for worse.
Ultimately, the family ends up together, eating leftovers with serving spoons (because they “come from shtetl people” as Mort says in the pilot). They are emotionally battered, bruised and confused, especially by the presence of their new Kansan visitor, but they are together. And the series ends on a punchline that is best left unspoiled.
“Transparent” is unlike most series out there because of Soloway’s auteurist imprint. Her work is marked by comfort, intimacy and humor, but also a devastating existential melancholy whose depths she is unafraid to plumb. The actors are all doing career best or breakout work, and the writing is top notch. It’s almost shocking that these ten episodes are only thirty-ish minutes, with the amount of story they are able to fit in. Each episode maintains the cozy relationships and wry humor without sacrificing narrative drive. The amazing thing about it is just how effortless it seems. [A]