Transparent: the beautiful education of a terrific TV show

Following the news it's been renewed for season 4, here's what makes Transparent such outstanding television...

I didn’t know what to expect when I first discovered Transparent on Amazon. The show was billed as a comedy, and a superficial examination of its structure and content – its episodes ran to the standard sitcom-length of thirty minutes, it was helmed by Jeffrey Tambor in a dress – seemed to support this categorisation; and yet I was aware that it had garnered serious critical acclaim and been nominated for a Golden Globe. Was this an off-the-wall, quirky chucklefest, I wondered, or a worthy and sober examination of transgender issues? Well, both as it turns out. And neither. And so much more besides. As Transparent itself teaches: labels can be misleading.

Transparent is set in California, but this isn’t the glitzy, Sunkist California of surfboards, bodacious dudes, and high-heeled models with pint-sized dogs we Brits are used to seeing on screen. This is a melancholic California, painted in sombre hues. This feeling is reinforced, and amplified, by the show’s title sequence, a flickering montage of old home movies set to haunting piano music, evoking bittersweet thoughts of loss, the inescapable march of time, the way others see us, and the agony of nostalgia.  

In a nutshell, Transparent gives us a warts-and-all, plausibly authentic portrayal of how one Californian Jewish family is turned on its head by the unfurling of a life-long secret: the true identity of retired professor and divorced Dad-of-three Mort Pffeferman (Jeffrey Tambor). Mort isn’t a superhero (not in the Marvel sense, anyway), or a fugitive, or a KGB double-agent; his true identity is at once more benign and more explosive than any of those possibilities. Mort’s secret is that she was born in the wrong body (the grammatical gymnastics and pronoun pole-vaults necessary to engage with Transparent become second-nature after a few episodes, until eventually they don’t seem like gymnastics at all). The reason the show is called Transparent should now be transparently clear to you.

The pilot episode builds towards a family dinner at Mort’s house during which he plans to share his life-changing news with his adult children. As the meal quickly descends into a series of selfish squabbles, Mort decides to reschedule his revelation. After all, what’s another few days’ wait when set against seven decades of silence? Unfortunately, Mort’s best-laid plans to ‘come out’ on his own terms crumble when his eldest daughter Sarah barges into his house a few days later and meets Maura – jewellery, flowing hair, dress and all – for the first time. Also with Sarah is her lesbian ex-lover Tammy, with whom she’s rekindling a relationship behind her husband’s back. 

Ad – content continues below

“Dad,” says Sarah, stunned, but also slightly amused, “why are you dressed as a woman?”

Maura shakes her head. “My whole life I’ve been dressing up as a man. This is me.”


Jeffrey Tambor sells the line so beautifully that you can almost hear the sound of a lifetime’s worth of relief start to hiss from the over-blown balloon of Maura’s heart. The long, slow transition that follows, with its concomitant carousel of emotions – as Mort moves from patriarch to matriarch, male to female, Mort to Maura, poppa to moppa – is played to perfection. Tambor can convey so much with the gentlest of shifts in his heavy, hangdog features. His performance here, nuanced, measured and quietly powerful, convinces absolutely that Tambor – like Mort himself – was born to be Maura.

If you’re already aware of the actor’s work through the superb and seminal The Larry Sanders Show (or the cult-classic Arrested Development or even the, em, much-maligned Muppets In Space) then you won’t be wholly surprised by the depth, sensitivity and authenticity that Tambor brings to the role of Maura, given the fierce humanity with which he always infused the hellish yet huggable Hank Kingsley. Even still, his performance in Transparent is a revelation, and one that left me astonished that this actor of such mesmerising range and talent hasn’t enjoyed greater prominence in the public consciousness. One can only hope that this is about to change, and that Tambor will finally gain recognition for being… well, himself.

When it comes to the quality of the writing, Transparent is a recognisable inheritor of shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men. The dialogue snaps and sparkles without ever feeling contrived or artificial, the action moves forward in ways that seem surprising and shocking, yet always inevitable – and honest – in retrospect. A lot of ‘big’ moments take place off-camera, saving us from the kinds of overly familiar plot beats and clichéd climaxes we’ve seen ad infinitum in a million network TV shows. Season two doesn’t build up to an important family wedding, it begins with one, a deliciously destructive disaster of a marriage that’s done and dusted by the time the credits roll on that first episode.

Ad – content continues below

As the show unfolds – and especially once it hits the stride of its almost-immaculate second season, with its weddings, beddings, festivals and forays into the sexual underbelly of Nazi Germany – Maura’s family begins to share centre stage. We get to see not only the ways in which they’ve attempted to weave Maura’s transformation into the tapestries of their own topsy-turvy lives, but also how they think and (mis)behave away from the orbits of their relational ties; the ripples (and tidal waves) they make in their own ponds.

Each of the adult Pfefferman children is equally well cast. The authenticity of both their looks and performances perfectly complement the sheer realness of the writing.

It’s clear that The Pfeffermans aren’t a squad of poster-perfect, dazzle-toothed He-men or impossibly tall, shiny-haired models. They’re ordinary people, average Joes – and Joannes – with bodily imperfections and dismorphic angst. They’re also incredibly funny.

There’s Josh (Jay Duplass), the record-producing loafer whose uber-hip image masks a damaged, fragile man-child with a burning need to be loved; Sarah (Amy Landecker), the beleaguered soccer mom saddled with an empty life of subsidised privilege who has no idea what she has, who she is, or wants to be, but will happily keep pushing the destruct button until she finds out; and Ali (Gaby Hoffman), the youngest child: the dreamer, the flirter, the flitter, the quitter. The experimenter. At once both the strongest and the weakest of the bunch.

They’re a trio of deeply damaged, selfish navel-gazers, who provide somewhat inconsistent (sometimes non-existent) support to their moppa, but they occasionally prove themselves capable of great generosity, sweetness and selflessness. In short, they’re human. They fuck up. A lot. They’ve also got a fair share of their own heartaches and disappointments, which run the gamut from sexual abuse, to depression, to discovering that dark secrets have been kept from them for decades. Episode to episode, your feelings about the Pfefferman children will change, just as the feelings your peers and family hold about you would flip-flop if they could see your life through some ghostly director’s omniscient, ever-recording eye. 

Maura herself is never portrayed as simply a hero, or a trail-blazer or a victim (although, of course, at times she is all three). The show asks tough questions of her, and of its audience. Sometimes you want to fight the world on Maura’s behalf –when Maura is harangued out of a public female toilet by an angry mother, or smirked and sneered at by a former work colleague – and other times you want to slap her in the face. She’s not beyond ignorance, insensitivity or selfishness. She can be close-minded, judgemental, haughty and arrogant; and on occasion the status and sense of entitlement she once enjoyed while living as a rich white man in a fiercely patriarchal society bleeds into and through Maura. And, perhaps crucially, while we sympathise with Maura’s fight, while we want her to be who she is and not have to answer for it, we can’t escape the possibility that the double life she was forced to live – with its sneaking and secrecy and hidden longings – had a profound and damaging effect on both her children and long-suffering (now ex-) wife Shelley (Judith Long).

Ad – content continues below

Shelley is a terrific character. Part Livia Soprano, part-most-of-the-Golden-Girls-rolled-into-one, part Jewish TV Mom 101: she’s caustic, sarcastic, hellish, selfish, withering, witty and wily, and loving in her own anxiety-ridden, operatic way. What could’ve been a one-note character is elevated by masterful writing, and Long’s equally masterful performance. Shelley will break your balls (and ears) one minute, and your heart the next. As Shelley – who becomes, or perhaps has always been, her ex-husband’s staunchest defender – and Maura’s relationship develops across the two seasons, we’re treated to something that is both poignant and tragic – and, of course, very funny.

Something I guess you could say about Transparent in general.

Hearts and minds

Transgenderism isn’t something with which I’ve had a great deal of personal experience. The area of Central Scotland in which I live is a patchwork of ex-mining villages and middle-class enclaves, peppered with the odd pocket of post-industrial deprivation. It’s never really been an exemplar of cosmopolitanism.

I remember as a teenager having a summer job where I had to sell bottles of juice door-to-door. One day, as my boss ferried us between villages in the company van, I caught sight of an elderly woman – kitted out in a flowing, floral dress – lying prone on a patch of grass. I figured she’d had a heart attack, so asked my boss to stop the van. He just laughed, and kept driving. I was too stunned to speak. How could the salubrious world of juice have made this man so callous?

My boss must have noticed the concern and revulsion tugging at my lips, because he leaned in to reassure me that the collapsed creature on the grass wasn’t some helpless old lady deserving of our assistance, but an elderly male alcoholic given to daily displays of this type. “It’s just some c*** in a dress,” he said, in his adorably Scottish way. My boss laughed. I laughed. We both laughed, I mean, how could we not? It was a man in a dress. Funny, right? 

Until recently, that event had been the beginning and end of my transgender education (excepting the odd apocryphal tale, insensitive tabloid tirade, or shared cigarette-hut snigger). I don’t even know if the person I saw that day was transgender, a transvestite, or just a flamboyant alcoholic aping the antics of an 80s Ozzie Osbourne. It certainly never occurred to me that this could be a man (or woman) in pain, trapped within and wrestling against the same sneering, whispering, hate-filled society that made things so unpleasant for my older sister when she came out as gay in the mid-1990s. 

Ad – content continues below

Despite various progressive (and long-overdue) leaps forward in criminal and civil legislation, cultural attitudes (helped along by the internet and social media), and education, the global battle for gay rights, and the wholesale societal acceptance of gay people, is far from over. You don’t need to travel as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Russia or Iran to witness the truth of this. Ignorance and hatred lurks everywhere: in your street; in your workplace; in your hubs, pubs and clubs. In some places, the calendar will always show the date of a by-gone century. However, while progress has been slow (yet undeniably seismic on occasion), things are moving in the right direction.

Regrettably, the fight for transgender rights is, in some ways, only just beginning. Twenty or thirty years ago, the reveal at the end of the pilot episode of a similarly bold show would have been Sarah’s lesbianism. Now, the gender of her lover is, one would hope, entirely irrelevant to us (whatever we may think about Sarah’s infidelity!). Transparent is very much on the front line of this ‘new’ cultural battle, waging a war to educate the viewing public about transgenderism, to capture hearts and minds. It certainly captured mine. I’m ashamed ever to have viewed transgenderism as some amusing oddity to be guffawed and giggled over. 

While it’s a show of staggering social importance, make no mistake: Transparent isn’t some staid and clunky issues-based drama thrown together for a high school social studies class, or the transcript of some tub-thumping leftist pamphlet on sexual liberation designed to put Bill O’Reilly in an early grave. As well as being earnest, entertaining and hugely addictive, the show comes from a very human place, having been inspired by creator Jill Solloway’s own experiences of her father coming out as transgender at the age of 74. The fight for transgender rights has been a noble and happy co-product of Solloway’s more personal mission: to make the world a safer place for her father. It’s working. Attitudes are changing. Transparent’s cast and crew are arguably the most trans-inclusive and trans-positive in TV and cinema history. And the show, as Jeffrey Tambor’s fan mail will attest, is literally saving lives.

But, Transparent doesn’t need to – and shouldn’t – rest on its admirable ideals. All told, it’s a smart, heart-felt, funny and soulful show that strides back and forth between comedy and tragedy, joy and gloom, with expert pace and precision, forcing us to rage, think, laugh, wonder, shudder and cry. Its characters’ lives are replete with all of the rich contradictions and complexities that characterise our own unscripted and imperfect existences. It’s ‘about’ Maura, and all women like her. But it’s also about us: how we love, how we open our hearts. And how we seek to find ourselves.