This Week on Dear Television:
- “That’s Not the Way it Feels: Transparent’s Ensemble,” from Phil Maciak
That’s Not the Way it Feels: Transparent’s Ensemble
By Phil Maciak
September 26, 2014
THERE’S A KIND of facepalm moment in the terrific pilot episode of Amazon’s terrific new series Transparent when you realize that the title is a pun. What initially seems like a show about a trio of bickering, bumping adult siblings turns out to be a show about their father coming out as a trans woman late in life. Get it? Trans. Parent. It’s a feeling that’s crucial to the show’s free-flowing aesthetic of embarrassment, uplift, and deep comedy. Transparent wants to make you constantly register some evolving combination of mortification, inspiration, and entertainment at every moment. And for the most part, it succeeds. There’s a glory in small embarrassments, a comic note in the most tragic circumstances, a melancholy to even the warmest of families. Nostalgia is what keeps us going and destroys us; memory is a pain in the ass. Jill Soloway has written a bittersweet show here, and I loved every episode.
But, over the course of the series, it becomes more and more clear that that facepalm moment is a bit of a red herring. Sure, the title’s a pun, but that’s not all, or even really primarily, what it is. Instead, aside from the flashy, topical premise, this actually is a show about a trio of bickering, bumping adult siblings — played with effortless familiarity by Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffmann. And the title is far more resonant as a description of their relationships — about the supernatural transparency, and the special sight, that exists between human beings that close — than it is as a one-off semi-joke about their dad’s gender identity. We see their father, Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) public and private struggles, and we even have brief flashbacks about her long, covert journey to this point, but it’s those siblings who fill out the show, contextualize the boffo performance at its center.
So what do you do with a show about a trans woman — because there are already so many shows about transgender people — that gets so much of its life from her three cisgendered children? When Netflix released Orange is the New Black, the show was praised (and occasionally critiqued) for essentially smuggling a spectacularly diverse cast of characters onto our TV sets by having our ostensible protagonist be a young, waif-like blond woman. It was a bait-and-switch based both on an understanding of dominant audience expectations and a desire to polemically mess around with dominant audience expectations. You think it’s a story about a white girl out of water, but it’s really a story about a group of people who had previously only existed on TV as caricatures, if they existed at all. I think Transparent is doing something of a reverse switcheroo. In its marketing, and in its — already implicitly underway — awards campaigning for Tambor, Transparent is a show about a trans woman. But, to quote a wonderful musical cue from the first episode, that’s not the way it feels.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, and, based on the skillful and delicate treatment of most of the relationships on this show so far, I have no doubt that by the end of the tenth episode — only four were provided for review — we’ll have a fully coherent map of the show’s points of view. But, for now, I think it’s interesting to speculate about how the show has managed these perspectives, how it’s managing being both a work of social fiction with the goal of revealing an experience normally unseen by the public and being a more generically conventional naturalistic family dramedy. Does progress on TV always happen in stutter-step like this, or is Transparent really on to something else?
In this regard, Transparent bears comparison to another dreamy, funny, richly-observed, California-based work of filmmaking about wrestling with an aging parent coming out: Mike Mills’s 2010 Beginners. It’s very clear from the outset that the point of view of this film is that of Oliver (Ewan MacGregor), a forlorn middle-aged artist whose father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay a few years before dying of cancer. The film gives a stunning portrait of Plummer’s character — from his negotiation of long-held desires in public for the first time to his experience in a loving, non-monogamous relationship with another man — but everything is filtered through Oliver, his straight son. He narrates the film, he controls its loopy narrative, and many of Plummer’s most important scenes are played out, quite literally, from Oliver’s point-of-view, as if he’s a documentarian interviewing his father. The film is about the late turn of an old queer man, but it’s primarily about how that turn impacts Oliver. Inasmuch as it shows how his father experiences love, loss, sex, and mourning, the film is about the way that Oliver learns these things from his old man. It’s not to damn the film for its narcissism to say that it’s simply not a film shot or told from the perspective of its gay co-lead.
Transparent is not Beginners. In other words, despite being a show that’s marketed as one focused on the experience of a late coming out, it doesn’t have the kind of artificially delineated point-of-view Beginners does. In fact, Transparent’s drifting point-of-view is part of what makes the show so compelling and part, also, of what makes it so hard to figure out. Again, this is less a problem than a way of zeroing in on the very question this show is most interested in asking.
At the level of the story, Transparent asks what happens to a family when one of its foundational parts reveals itself to be something unexpected. It’s about that revelation, about that process of self-discovery and identification, but it’s also about the relationality within the group. Mort is now Maura, and the show is dedicated to focusing on that evolution, but what, it also asks, does that make everybody else? At the level of form, Transparent asks what happens to an ensemble if you isolate one of its parts. It’s not so crass or simple-minded as to actually close-off Tambor, or to perceive his performance as a kind of threat or outlier, but the show does brilliantly nuance the ways in which an easy intimacy can become an uneasy one. The naturalistic organism of the family ensemble — that Soloway did so much to build on HBO’s Six Feet Under — is itself at stake. As Maura points out to her daughter in a later episode, she’d been dressing up as a man her entire life, not the other way around. So what happens to naturalism when we realize that what it was founded upon wasn’t itself natural? The illusion of a family drama like this — or like the similarly organic-seeming sibling series, Parenthood — is that the family works, the ensemble works because it’s based in shared truth. Transparent admits to the fact that this unit is one constructed around perceptions, not truths, and its drama lies in the arc of re-constructing the unit, the family, the ensemble, around a more solid and honest reality.
Early in the first episode, we sit in on a family dinner — Sarah (Landecker), Josh (Duplass), and Ali (Hoffmann) all gather at their father’s house with takeout to hear a big announcement. Maura intends this to be the moment when she comes out, but she can’t get a word in edgewise. As the camera spins and cuts around the large table, the siblings build what is recognizable as the shorthand of familial intimacy. They finish each others’ sentences, they don’t respect each others’ physical space, they tease, they coddle. But as the speed of the cuts and pans increase and the siblings’ faces become slashed with barbecue sauce like the sets of a samurai film, this intimacy begins to feel barbaric, bullying even. This is the ensemble as perpetual motion machine, the family as out-of-control whirligig. Maura backs off, and we continue the episode, unenlightened.
The final sequence of the pilot sets the heading for the rest of the series in a graceful, rhythmic montage that appropriates this energy and re-focuses it. There are three scenes: Sarah, now married to a man and the mother of two, has brought her college girlfriend back to her father’s house; Josh is watching his girlfriend’s twee band whisper their way through a cover of Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” he commissioned after finding an old Croce record at Maura’s house; and Ali is doing push-ups in the throes of a kind of BDSM workout session with her very good-looking, very dominant personal trainer. We’ve followed Maura around earlier, we know the score, but she’s not in the mix here. The siblings themselves are not together either, but Soloway begins to cut these scenes into each other. Josh’s girlfriend’s band becomes the soundtrack for all the scenes, and Ali’s trainer can be heard counting down push-ups from 10 in all of the shots. Just as Sarah and her ex begin lustily making out, the trainer counts off to one, and the band wafts up to the chorus, Maura enters the room. There are three points of view in this montage, and Maura’s was not one of them at the beginning. But her entrance stops the converging sounds, halts the action, and it’s her face as Maura, over-the-shoulder from Sarah and her ex that occupies the last frame of the episode, as Croce’s original track cross-fades in and we cut to black.
To say that this show works so well as a sibling ensemble isn’t to give short-shrift to Soloway or Tambor’s work creating Maura as a living character. Instead, it’s to compliment the show on having the courage to build itself in this manner, to dramatize the way that this parent can only desperately hold on to the sustaining world created by her children. The ensemble can be bullying, it can be dreamlike, it can be charismatic, but most of all, it can be isolating. It can expel as much as it can draw in. I suspect that the paradox here of warmth and exclusion, community and deep loneliness is the point. Throughout the series, the moments of real transcendence occur when artifice drops away, when any of these characters have an opportunity to see through each other — get it…transparent?
Maura tells her support group that her children are “selfish,” and that seems true, but the good moments here are not about achieving some ideal of selflessness. Instead, they work almost as moments of communal selfishness, of sharing something conspiratorial and good together, of creating and jealously protecting a shared self. Through four episodes, these moments — especially a dance scene between Ali and Josh at the end of episode four — occur only between the siblings. This seems intentional, even as it makes Maura’s arc all the more breathtakingly sad sometimes. (A bonding make-over brunch with Sarah and Ali quickly reveals itself to be a pretense for the two self-obsessed siblings, and everyone walks away lonelier and more wounded than before.) Whether the siblings will have these moments with Maura, or whether she’ll find them elsewhere, it’s hard to say. But the sheer fact that Soloway can muster and snatch away moments like these on a dime is extraordinarily encouraging. Transparent is next-level ensemble television, and, at the very least, that’s not something you see on TV everyday.
You know, that thing that you do when you’re falling in love,