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tv review: transparent

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Transparent, Amazon’s newest comedy-drama, is, on its face, about a family. It follows the daily lives of the Pfeffermans at their most mundane; they go to the mall, they get their kids ready for school, they go on dates with rabbis. Throughout the course of its ten-episode first season, however, Transparent reveals itself to be about so much more than that.

The series kicks off with Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) the patriarch of the family, beginning his transition from male to female and adopting the name Maura. The first few episodes follow Maura as she struggles to come out to her family, which includes her ex-wife Shelley (Judith Light) and their three children.

She first comes out to her eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), a mother who rekindles her relationship with a college girlfriend. Next is Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), the youngest Pfefferman, who scored highly on the SAT but, as Maura puts it, ‘doesn’t seem to be able to land.’ The last to learn is Josh (Jay Duplass), a music executive enamoured with Raquel, the family rabbi (Kathryn Hahn).

Throughout the first season, creator Jill Soloway, who wrote and directed many of the episodes, achieves a uniquely bittersweet tone. There’s humour in the series, but it’s almost always grounded by an ornate sadness that feels both uncomfortably realistic and alarmingly personal. The viewers are shown the Pfeffermans at their most vulnerable. We see their triumphs (Maura becomes giddy after a waiter refers to her and a friend as “ladies”) and their crushing embarrassments (Ali’s trainer and his roommate backing out of the threesome she had planned for them). There’s an intimacy that’s unlike anything else on television.

The most groundbreaking aspect of Transparent, however, is its treatment of gender, sexuality, and identity in general. It realises that sexuality is fluid, gender is a socially constructed performance, and that identity changes – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly and over decades. This is, of course, most evident in Maura. Her transition challenges the rest of her family’s ideas and perceptions about gender, which forces the viewers to do the same in turn.

While doing press for the show earlier this year, Soloway said she hoped that Transparent would begin a civil rights movement for the transgender community. This would seem like a pretty grandiose statement if it didn’t hold so much weight. The show allows the audience a glimpse into the trans experience, to live vicariously through the Pfeffermans. Soloway doesn’t shy away from the most crushing and painful aspects of Maura’s transition – the incorrect pronouns, the confrontation she’s forced into while using the women’s restroom for the first time.

Transparent would not be nearly as strong a show if it weren’t for Jeffrey Tambor’s performance. He completely embodies Maura. He’s quiet and gentle while still being authoritative and forceful when he must be. Maura is ready to become who she really is after a lifetime of dressing up as someone she’s not. Under Tambor and Soloway, this transition is portrayed skilfully, with nuance and boundless sensitivity.

The final shot of the season is appropriately heartbreaking. The Pfeffermans sit around a dinner table after a funeral. Every character is at odds, or harbouring a secret from another member of the family, and by the time the episode cuts to black, very little is resolved. Family is complex and messy, but they always find their way back to each other. This is a relatively traditional idea for a show like this, but this ending features no real resolutions or answers. It’s ambiguous, complicated and strikingly human, and here, Transparent feels revolutionary.

 

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