I just finished watching the pilot episode for “Transparent” the latest attempt out of Hollywood to portray the trans experience. And Wow. I mean, really, wow. That was not what I expected.
And I mean that as high praise. At least kind of. But let me explain.
I would be lying if I said I had gone into this without expectations. I’ve been hearing about this show for quite some time now. First rumours. Then confirmation. Then hints through the trans pipeline about the behind the scenes production.
It took very little detective action to take a look at who was working on this. It even turned out that I was connected to the director, Jill Soloway from about 20 different directions. Including the husband of the first woman I ever had a crush on at summer camp. Who I recently reconnected with when she asked if she could take some naked pictures of me! (They’re on the internet, if you really want to know that much about me. And they’re quite nice really!)
So that’s my full disclosure of a sort. And I went in with split expectations. On the one hand, some of the people I was connected to the director through are people whom I admire a great deal. Including my mentor and friend, the amazing improviser, David Razowsky. I also was very impressed by the work Soloway has done previously. Including as a producer and writer of the series Six Feet Under and director of a section of a film based on the autobiographical novel Valencia by queer author Michelle Tea. A book that was really quite inspirational to me when I read it out in L.A. just previous to my transition.
On the other hand. Hollywood hasn’t been doing the most bang-up job of representing trans people lately. There have been close steps, almost okays, but then they invariably fail.
With only a couple of exceptions, the late night television roster seems to have been a veritable factory of faux-pas and insensitive portrayals lately. And in primetime, we are still far too often portrayed as sex objects, psychos or the as punchline for jokes that were already old when Milton Berle was putting on a dress for laughs.
So I’ll admit, when I saw that the pilot for Transparent was out on Amazon Prime, I pressed play with a great deal of skepticism. If perhaps skepticism tempered with a bit of hope.
And right from the first moment, I was surprised. First of all, the titles. These weird, throwbacky, seventies sitcom style titles. A font that looked lifted straight from The Jeffersons.
As a child whose favourite babysitter growing up in the Seventies and Eighties was our little black and white tv, I was hooked instantly on a wriggling worm of nostalgia. So, imagine my surprise when the very next shot is of a couple in bed and, and….
Waitaminute! They’re showing that woman naked!
This isn’t the seventies anymore, this is how people actually sleep in their beds as couples!! Naked, with sheets partly thrown off. Because it gets hot in L.A.!
Already I knew that whatever expectations I might have where going to be up for grabs. Still, I watched each scene, waiting for the reveal, ready to be all clever and know-it-all trans advice columnist and say, “Ah ha!” I knew the hammer was about to drop!! There it is! There’s the awful, cheap joke about a guy in a dress!
But it kept not happening.
Now, I don’t want to give too many spoilers here. I suggest that you watch the show yourself. Give it your own attention. If I were to tell you too, too much it would spoil what I liked most about it. Which was that I found it consistently surprising.
What I will tell you is that Jeffrey Tambor was quite sensitive in his portrayal of a late-middle-aged father in the beginnings of male-to-female transition. I consistently liked how he played each scene he was in. And his relationship with his three children was very real feeling to me.
Also, it’s a great deal more adult than what you may be used to on network tv. There’s nudity and there’s sex. Quite a lot of it actually for a half hour sitcom.
If that’s not your thing, you might want to steer clear. I know I have one friend who is not at all prudish personally, but who consistently fast-forwards through love scenes, because she just hates them! She’d get a nice short film out of this episode.
As for myself, I liked the more adult theme, mainly because I think it gives the writers a lot more leeway to explore genuine human stories. It opens up far more avenues than traditional sitcoms are able to explore. Which in turn, I hope, will allow the cast and writers to flesh out (Ha!! Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) a more authentic portrayal of the trans woman of the title and the characters around her.
There were a few other touches I liked personally. The music was one of them. There is a very nice scene where the daughter and son of the main character are going through their dad’s record collection and they stop to comment on a Jim Croce album that they loved.
The whole scene reminded me very much of my own father and his record collection. Which included that same Croce album, which I loved as well!
For me, that allowed me to flip perspectives and identify also with the kids of this trans parent. Their characters being much more of my own generation, than Tambor’s trans character.
As for Tambor himself, I also harboured very conflicted feelings. I really, really like Jeffrey Tambor as an actor. And though he’s perhaps better known for his roles in Arrested Development or The Larry Sanders Show. I was a huge fan of the show, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future when I was a geeky punk teenager. In fact, in many ways it was pretty seminal to the person I became. It still inspires what I aspire to be. “Live and direct.”
But picturing Tambor’s character from that show, a harried, perpetually stressed out television producer named Murray, as a trans woman, was causing me a bit of dissonance, to put it mildly. It was a little hard to shake.
Also, I’m really tired of seeing cis people (Someone who identifies as the gender they were identified as at birth. Ie., not trans.) play trans in tv and movies. Still, Tambor does an excellent acting job here, and given the early transition time period of this show, I found the casting to be actually appropriate.
To the producer’s credit, there appeared to be several authentic trans people playing smaller parts. And I have it on fairly good authority that if this show gets picked up for more episodes, they plan on casting a credible ensemble of genuine trans people. Fingers crossed.
So, would I recommend this show? Though I know the sort of trouble I could get in to with my more radical friends for saying this; yes, yes I would. I think it’s worth at least giving a chance to.
Transparent is currently available on Amazon Prime as an Amazon Original Pilot. A “Test Pilot” if you will! (I know, I know! Listen, I was a comic before I was a radical trans activist okay?? A girl’s just gotta get these things out sometimes.) And if enough people watch it and tell Amazon that they like it, the show will get a go at more episodes.
I rather hope it does. I’m curious to see where they go with this story and these characters. I’m hopeful they might even do it right! Certainly if they can continue to be able to surprise my jaded media-analyzing self, they’ll be on the right track.
And finally, I personally hope it gets picked up because, speaking frankly, I’d love to be part of that cast! This queer trans, activist, adventurer and pageant queen is ready to balance out all the marching and saving the world stuff with a little more of the making people laugh scene again!!