I was willing to go with the non-trans casting of the excellent Jeffrey Tambor for the role of the father who comes out to his children as a woman later in life. I was willing to overlook the stereotypes of lesbians as domestic snuggle bunnies blissed out on home improvement and less interested in hardcore fucking; I was even willing to tolerate the dweeby brother who, despite being a deeply irritating human being, manages to pick up one interesting lady after another. But the final straw for me, late one night, deep into a binge watching cycle of Transparent, was when Dale, a transman, struggles to get his sex toy out of its child proof packaging in anticipation of hot sex with his fem date, Ali, and then drops his dildo on the floor. In that moment, I felt my faith in the series slipping away as fast as Ali’s desire, and when she turns to leave, giving up for now on the potential of a heated and sexy exchange, turning her back on the fallen Sparkle Unicorn tool, I was ready to go with her. But, like any good binge watcher, I continued watching, being lifted by its high notes, disappointed by its low blows, and somewhat entertained by everything in between.
Transparent, created and directed by Jill Soloway, received much acclaim for its first season. Rolling Stone credited it with “making the world safer for trans people”; Out dubbed it as the first show to properly handle not only transgenderism but also bisexuality; and, The Advocate called Transparent, simply, “great television.” Telling the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in Los Angeles that falls apart and regroups around the patriarch’s revelation of her desire to live as a woman, Transparent covers a lot of new ground for television. The acting is uniformly great in this show, and its refusal to trade only in positive images of trans people–never mind Jews, lesbians, female rabbis, and butch security guards–makes it a unique media event in the history of queer representation. In a nutshell, the show gets a lot right, but as a footnote, it also makes some rookie mistakes. Now, some four months after its release, after allowing the dust it kicked up to settle a little, let’s reassess the highs and the lows of Transparent.
- The Writing – “No one has ever seen me except me” (Maura). The challenge with Transparent lies in its ability to represent a specific trans experience without making it representative of all trans experience. The show manages to convey, with some subtlety, the relief of coming out, the stress of feeling exposed, the sadness of being late to the table. Maura is a multifaceted character and a uniformly talented cast backs her up.With a writing team that includes the great Ali Liebegott and a consultant team that includes Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Transparent made the wise decision to work with trans people’s own narratives rather than to cleave faithfully to Jill Soloway’s autobiographical story. Soloway’s experience with her father’s transition still forms the spine of the piece but it is well rounded out with a clutch of other stories about aging, sexual experimentation, addiction, sibling tension and so on
- The Humor – “Four out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” When Ali (Gaby Hoffman) explains to her siblings Josh (Jay Duplass) and Sarah (Amy Landecker) that her date for the “Trans Talent Show” is the handsome trans man across the room (played by Ian Harvie), Josh first struggles to incorporate more new information about gender flexibility and then blurts out the line of the season: “Four out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” It is a great line and like much of the humor in the show, perfectly delivered. Eschewing the sit-com laugh-line humor for a more self-deprecating style that mixes defeat and disappointment in healthy doses with wry self-awareness, Transparent actually hits a few new notes for comedy.
- The Acting – Jeffrey Tambor really draws out the fine shading of his character and while the siblings perform their hysteria (Amy Landecker as Sarah), paranoia (Jay Duplass as Josh) and neurosis (Ali) to the tee, some of the best acting falls to the minor characters like Ian Harvie, Judith Light and Carrie Brownstein. Brownstein’s show stealing turn as Ali’s best friend in love with both Ali and embroiled sexually with her brother, was magnificent. And both Harvie and Light are totally convincing and more in their roles.
- The Brutally Realistic Appraisal of the Fucked Up Family: Davina to Maura: “In five years you are gonna look up and none of your family are gonna be there. Not one.” Resisting the Hollywood-ready narrative of the ever-expansive family network that bends and bows to embrace the good and the bad of its flawed members, Transparent is willing to dig into the fragility of family ties. Family, the show reveals, hangs too much upon the pathetic alibi of blood bonds and longevity and these connections, dependent as they are upon custom and routine, cannot incorporate new information well. Family, more often than not, is convenience, parasitism and laziness, a group of people stuck in hell and too idle to leave. And queer community, at least prior to the installation of gay marriage, offered one important alternative to biological bonds. One of the greatest contributions made by Transparent, indeed, lies in its willingness to expose the rotten core of American family life and offer alternatives even if they come in the form of bad sex, infidelity and addiction!
The Writing – while mostly I loved the writing, there are numerous missteps. In one episode, for instance, Syd tells Ali she is a “vaginal learner” (huh?), “you have to stick stuff in there to see what it feels like…” And, in another, Sarah asks her ex husband, Len, whether her tits were “too overwhelming” for him. Later, in much telegraphed post-breakup sex, Len tells Sarah that, since she is now with a woman, she must be missing his cock. And so on. These interactions seem to be playing to another audience, a straight audience perhaps, an audience who often has to be instructed in what Len calls “dildo-ology” or in the variations within the category of transsexual. Who can argue with a little pedagogical push, but when push comes to shove, the show seems to orient too much to a straight audience, the one most identified with sleazebag Josh, and most invested in familial stability.
The Pathos – I am all for a little pathos. Hell, I am all for a lot of pathos especially when it is used judiciously to spring a coming out narrative out of the mine field of clichés and to place it in the all too human terrain of loss. But sometimes, Transparent divvies up and distributes the pathos in ways that make it seem like simply part of the terrain of transgenderism. Pathos, we all know, is the foundation of heterosexuality, maybe of all sexuality, but in the show, sometimes, especially in the trans-talent episode, pathos seems to be the hallmark of trans life and this despite the deep and wide and magical archive of queer performance scenes that the producers all participate in and could have drawn upon. Given the incredible contributions to art, film and performance made by Drucker and Ernst and considering the eclectic writing career of Ali Liebegott, there is just no reason that the drag show had to be so bad, so sad, so pitiful.
The Trans Sex Scene
And so, we circle back around to the Sparkle Unicorn in the room, the dildo on the floor, the trans sex scene that never happened. Ian Harvie has answered questions about this scene in various interviews and has insisted, rightly, that the scene must be considered in context. The scene is intercut with a failed sexual interaction between Josh and the female rabbi, Raquel and so the theme of the episode is detumescence. This is all well and good but while Josh simply fails to get it up, Dale cannot handle his dildo, and the banter between Ali and Dale leading up to the failed sex scene is kind of cringe worthy. The “shave-your-pussy” scene just seems like one major buzz kill.
So, in between the highs, the lows and the lousy, there is much to admire in this new series and while I am still waiting for a dildo-sex scene to rival the one that Kim Peirce shot for The L Word back in 2006, I have faith that the Sparkle Unicorn will survive its fall from grace and return to offer a real lesson in sex, gender creativity and magic.