Amazon’s first truly great series makes transitioning a family affair
by Megan Smith
“I don’t have cancer! You kids want me to have cancer!?,” Maura Pfefferman shouts.
She’s just announced to her three adult children over dinner that she’s going through a big change, and needs to share it with them. But Maura’s children don’t listen; instead they talk over her—and each other. “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves,” she says.
What Maura needs is for them to see her; they still see her as their father, a man named Mort.
The appropriately named Transparent, Amazon Originals’ highly anticipated new series from creator Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under and United States of Tara), follows 70-year-old Jewish transwoman Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) as she navigates transitioning late in life, coming out to her children, and finding her new place in the world.
Her three children are completely absorbed in their own dysfunctional lives. The eldest, Sarah (Amy Landecker), is a stay-at-home mom, bored in her marriage to husband Len (Rob Huebel). After discovering that one of her kids now goes to the same school as the child of her former lesbian lover, Tammy (Melora Hardin), the pair rekindles their college romance with what turns into a passionate, home-wrecking affair.
Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) is the genius child who doesn’t know how to apply herself—brilliant but unemployed, with little to no goals. She fills the holes in her life with drugs and meaningless sex. Even her friends seem to stay one step away from her.
From the outside, Maura’s only son, Josh (Jay Duplass), a successful music producer, seems to have his life together. But underneath the surface, he’s constantly riding the line between wanting to actually settle down with one of his many girlfriends (in this case, the one he’s impregnated) and simply not wanting to be alone. It also comes to light that he’s been having a long-term affair with his childhood babysitter.
Maura has her work set out for her, to say the least. And, as is the case with many coming-out narratives, things don’t go according to plan. Daughter Sarah is the first to find out, after Maura comes home from a trans support group, presenting as female, and walks in on her and Tammy together. A particularly beautiful line follows, as Sarah asks Maura if she’ll be “dressing like a lady all the time,” and she responds, “No, honey, all my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”
Soloway’s casting of Tambor, a cisgender man, to play a transgender role has raised some major concerns within the trans community. In response, Soloway, whose own father came out as trans several years ago, tells NPR’s All Things Considered,“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. We’re happy to be corrected.” She has also cast trans actors and actresses for around 12 speaking parts, has hired trans consultants to help guide the show, and notes that at least 20 percent of the crew is LGBT.
It’s obvious from watching the first episode that Transparent is groundbreaking. In 1998, Will & Grace shook the country by introducing gay people into homes nationwide. In 2014, Transparent is doing the same with transgender folks. While neither show is perfect (they both center around white, upper-middle-class people, Transparent’s Tambor is not transgender, and Will & Grace’s leading man, Eric McCormack, was a straight actor playing gay), the fact is, these characters become your friends, your neighbors, and your family. And for the majority of Americans who don’t know (or don’t think they know) anyone who is trans, that means a lot. “America already loves Jeffrey Tambor,” Soloway tells The Advocate. “To watch him become Mort and then become Maura, it’s like, here’s somebody you already know and love who is trans.”
All 10 episodes of Transparent are available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.