The Good: Amazing performances, Moments of message and plot
The Bad: Predictable plot progression, Incredibly unlikable characters
The Basics: The first season of Transparent lives up to its promise for performance, but loses much of its message amid “premium cable” conceits.
Before I saw the ten-episode debut season of Transparent, I was tremendously excited about it. Jeffrey Tambor is a favorite of mine and watching him accept the Golden Globe Award for his role in Transparent was impressive and damn good television. So, if anything, I was biased going into the first season of Transparent. That excitement faded and it’s a bad sign for the show when the only thing that kept me watching was the recurring guest starring role of Bradley Whitford.
The crux of my issue with Transparent, at least in its first season, is that it is beholden more to the spectacle and formula common to premium cable channels than being truly original or pushing its message. Premium cable channels have a tendency to push the envelope, but it seems like virtually every drama on premium cable insists on presenting a ridiculous Los Angeles view of the world – there is always some combination of hard drug use, infidelity, and wealth that is so high as to alienate most of its audience. The issue with the first season of Transparent is much like the enduring problem with The L-Word (reviewed here!); you lose some of the importance of the message when none of the characters are likable. With The L-Word, it was tough for root for any of the characters when all of them cheated in the course of the series.
In its first season, Transparent has similar issues. The problem is not with protagonist Maura Pfefferman coming out as a transgendered person later in life, it is with the rest of the character traits for the protagonist and all of the supporting character. Maura continually lies to all of her children and encourages them to lie to one another. Maura’s daughter Sarah is not unlikable because she is a lesbian, but rather because she cheats repeatedly on her husband with a married woman who has her own family and children. Her inability to be faithful or have integrity enough to leave her spouse before becoming a homewrecker makes her utterly unlikable. Similarly, Sarah’s younger sister Ali is a drug-addled sex maniac who never comes close to seeming remotely like a self-actualized character. Maura’s son Josh was sexually abused by a babysitter as a child and is now a maladjusted adult with anger issues. And Maura’s ex-wife, Shelly, is a stereotype of an old Jewish lady.
The point here is that the conceits of the family drama are already being turned by having the family’s patriarch come out as a transgendered female. It dilutes the message that transgendered people should be treated equally and with respect when the rest of the characters are so loathsome. While it is reasonable that as Mort transitions into Maura, there would be a number of lies that would be exposed and shed from her life, the rest of the characters being so extremely a-normal and lacking any moral compass is troubling. The whole heavy drug use thing in premium television is overdone and passé by this point and in Transparent it seems utterly droll. Nothing really puts a knife in the argument for equality like characters that are unlikable or who are severely distanced from middle American values (I’m not talking about ridiculous, right-wing Evangelical hatespeech, either; the fact that the story doesn’t include characters who are monogamous, faithful and/or financially strapped in a realistic way). Transparent seems more like a parody of an American family and for anyone who has watched The L-Word and/or Weeds (reviewed here!) will find it to be troublingly formulaic as opposed to audacious. Instead of doing a true pro-transgendered television show, Transparent puts forth a convoluted, familiar-to-cable “cutting-edge” programming conceits show that just swaps out gay, lesbian, young single woman living in New York City or pot dealer for transgendered person.
In the first season of Transparent, Mort Pfefferman decides after living most of his life publicly as a man, he is ready to come out as a transgendered person. When she walks in on her daughter Sarah making out with her ex-girlfriend, Maura is outed to her family. Maura’s children slowly learn of her transitioning and slowly come to accept her. But as Maura publicly transitions, she finds people’s reactions off-putting. Maura causes conflict among her children by giving the family house away to Sarah, continually giving Ali money and lying to them all.
Through flashbacks, Maura’s tormented life is revealed and things like giving the house away comes to make much more sense. Incidents like Maura’s children losing the aged and uncommunicative Ed (their mother’s new husband) and Josh’s very young girlfriend getting an abortion without him are woven against the story of Mort sneaking away from them to spend time out of town as Maura (usually with her trans friend, Marcy).
There are some troubling aspects to the first season of Transparent. Chief among the troubling aspects of Transparent is the backstory for Josh Pfefferman. Josh had a sexual relationship with a babysitter as a fairly young minor. In the course of Josh falling apart in the first season, he gets the answer to an important question, “Did his parents know what was going on at the time?” The answer, though, has no real effect on the character, which is a terrible message to be sending to parents who abet childhood sexual abuse (i.e. it won’t matter, your kid will thank you for it as an adult?! WTF?!).
In the first season of Transparent, the essential characters are:
Maura Pfefferman – The female persona of Mort Pfefferman, who is finally ready to come out to her adult children. She supports Ali financially and seems to empathize most with Sarah. She moves out of the family’s old home, encounters people who knew her as a man, and gets advice on transitioning from someone else who lives in the same complex. She slowly finds support and happiness as she redefines herself,
Sarah Pfefferman – The oldest daughter of Maura and Shelly, she is deeply unhappy with her husband. Reconnecting with her ex-girlfriend from college, she abandons her husband, breaks up her girlfriend’s family, and moves into the Pfefferman family house. She is the first to learn about Maura and is exceptionally supportive of her, even getting to her children to know her new grandmother,
Josh Pfefferman – The most successful of the Pferrerman children, he is working for a record company, though he is sleeping with his talent. When his young girlfriend gets pregnant, aborts the fetus, and dumps him as a manager, his life takes an abrupt turn. He reunites with the woman who was his babysitter, who had sex with him when he was in his mid-teens, before seeking guidance from the new rabbi in the area,
Ali Pfefferman – The youngest daughter of Maura and Shelly, she has never found her niche. She is going to go back to school yet again, after working to get in shape (ostensibly to have a threesome with her trainer and his roommate). Maura gives her money, asking her to not tell her siblings,
Tammy Cashman – A realtor who is living with her wife and their children when Sarah re-enters her life and decides her orientation truly is lesbian. She abandons the family she has had for years for Sarah,
and Shelly – Maura’s ex-wife, a parody of an old Jewish woman.
Transparent is notable for trying, but where it truly succeeds is with the performances of Jeffrey Tambor and Bradley Whitford. Tambor is magnificent throughout, but the best scenes in the season all have Tambor and Whitford together and Maura and Marcy figuring out their new identities as they explore their gender identities away from the prying eyes of their families. Tambor is subtle and plays Maura with the perfect mixture of tormented and triumphant to be watchable and relatable.
But Tambor and Whitford’s infrequent appearances are not enough to justify watching the first season. For someone psyched about Transparent, that was an unpleasant surprise.
For other works with Melora Hardin, please check out my reviews of:
Thank You For Smoking
For other television season reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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