Art & Culture

Transparent: Why a new American TV show about a transgender parent is a landmark

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriJan 20, 2015 | 16:36

Transparent: Why a new American TV show about a transgender parent is a landmark

On stage last week, Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, thanked her "moppa" as she received the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. Moppa, for the uninitiated, stands for "mom+poppa", and refers to Jill's dad, who transitioned to a woman. Soloway also honoured the memory of Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen who committed suicide last year.

Transparent which debuted its first season on Amazon's web streaming service last year is a landmark in television for several reasons. The first, of course, is the show's central premise - the transition of family patriarch Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) to Maura at the ripe old age of 60. But that is only one element of the show, which tracks the lives of the entire Pfefferman clan with a sensitivity that never tips into mawkishness.


We meet Mort in the first episode after he has made the decision to transition. Tambor does not put a foot wrong as Mort-turning-into-Maura. The character is at a stage in life where he can do pretty much whatever he wants. He has already raised a family, and his marriage with Shelly (Judith Light), though over, has not left a stinging bitterness. (When Shelly asks her husband if he still loves her, he says "Of course." She laughs and wonders if that makes him a lesbian and remarks: "So, we got gay-married before it was fashionable.")

So, that's the cool family Mort is transitioning around. Yet, transitioning is such big business that he is unsure how to go about it. How should he come out to his children, especially his son, since men's idea of their masculinity can be mixed up with their fathers'? For starters, he begins living in a commune for the transgender, and the viewer fears, just for that split second, that he will end up as one of those old, lonely queens, without a family.

But Transparent shows us a family of real people, with their own set of foibles, but also with a deep love for one another. Mort is not the weirdo here; they all are. And by throwing such a steady light on truth and our responsibility to live by it, the show forces us to acknowledge the weirdo inside each one of us.

Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

Mort's children - Ali, Sarah and Josh - are going through their own personal crises. In the course of the season, Sarah (Amy Landecker) will break her marriage to Len to return to the lesbian life she once shared with Tammy, her lover from college. Josh (Jay Duplass) will continue to flit from one failed relationship to the next, until the show's end reveals something truly ground-shaking.

But it is Ali (Gaby Hoffman), the youngest, who is the true alter ego of her father as she confronts questions that strike at the very roots of her existence. She has never been conventionally successful, has never held down a job. She lives on money that Mort gives her. But like her father, an inner fire burns in her, and she is the most open to experiencing new ways of feeling and being. After she learns of her father's status, she forces herself to attend a gender studies course where she meets a man "with a vag". She discovers that he likes "high-fem" women, which means women who are highly effeminate and somewhat flirtatious, so she dresses up as one, and they go on a date.


In fact, so much about the show is simply an education. That a person can be called transgender without their going through with the surgery (like the man Ali dates) is head-smackingly obvious. But how often do these issues get discussed in the mass media?

It is in the last episode of the season that a lot of the show's simmering anxieties rise to the surface. Ed, the second husband of Shelly and a patient of Alzheimer's, has been eased into "the next transition", as Maura calls his mercy killing, and the Pfefferman clan has assembled for his funeral. Subsequently, there is a showdown between Ali and Maura and later still a dinner where they all come together again.

The show never lets the viewer rest, at no time encouraging complacency about the lives of its characters. A crisis is always at hand, but so are the bonds that have stood this bunch of imperfect people in good stead. Transparent follows a logic of its own, which is really the logic of life - surprising, sudden, richly uncertain.

Last updated: January 20, 2015 | 16:36
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