Editor's Note: Guest blogger Andé Morgan is a freelance writer and blogger who writes for No Accommodation and is a columnist for The Rainbow Hub, covering topics in popular culture, politics, race, and LGBTQ issues. As a staff writer for Bitch Flicks, Andé reviews films from a feminist perspective.
By now, you have probably heard about Transparent -- the pilot episode of this half-hour (dark) dramatic comedy was released by Amazon Studios earlier this month. Last year, Amazon announced its intent to subvert the norm by releasing multiple pilots simultaneously and using viewer ratings to select which shows to continue (i.e., Amazon Pilot Season). You can watch the pilot for free until March 1, and leave some feedback if you want to see more.
The pilot was written and directed by Jill Soloway (United States of Tara, Six Feet Under), and features Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) as the family patriarch (a familiar role), ex-husband to Mom (Judith Light), and father of three adult children: Josh (Jay Duplass), Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), and Sarah (Amy Landecker).
Family dramas are nothing new, but Transparent is groundbreaking because the protagonist is a transgender woman.
The pilot begins with a survey of the infuriatingly opulent banality of life in the white, affluent suburbs of Los Angeles. We quickly learn, however, that the main plotline really concerns Tambor's character, Maura (Mort to her kids, for now), and her desperation to come out to her family as transgender.
Her plans to do so over an intimate dinner are interrupted by her childrens' myopic self-concerns. Josh thinks Maura has cancer, and he's more concerned about the terms of her will than about her health. Ali is broke, and probably depressed. Amy is stuck in a loveless marriage to a good-but-oblivious husband, and longs for her college girlfriend.
The program has generally received favorable reviews (four stars at Amazon.com and 7.4/10 at IMDB), both for its formal elements and for its story. Margaret Lyons referred to it as her "favorite pilot in years." When asked about the pilot's timing relative to the recent increase in transgender visibility in the media, Soloway said in a recent interview for Vulture:
"The fact that this happens to seem like a real moment for a national discussion about gender is for me just part of the perfection of how it all turned out. It really was never my original intention. I always saw the father's transition in the show as a metaphor for the way people in families don't necessarily stay put in the places where we would like them to be."
Let me put my bias out front: I want the show to be picked up and to succeed, because visible, authentic, positive portrayals of transgender people are sorely needed. Transgender characters are typically depicted as deceivers, killers, criminals, and generally deserving of derision. Speaking to The Advocate, Soloway said that she consulted with LGBT advocacy groups and transgender activists while developing the pilot in order to avoid reinforcing these negative stereotypes.
That is all very well. However, I just can't say that I completely agree with the somewhat generous reviews of the pilot that I've read recently.
I am not being contrarian. The pilot suffered from muddy, self-important pacing, and the relentless circular tracking shots reminded me of the nausea-inducing Facebook Paper tilt-to-pan feature. The writing was sharp, but not as much as in Soloway's previous efforts.
Also, while I certainly appreciate being treated like an adult, Amazon seemed a bit too intent on making sure that the audience realized that they weren't watching basic cable. I mean, there was a lot of sex and nudity crammed into that half-hour. Sex and nudity are great, but not when they distract from the story. A notable exception is the scene where we see Ali silently critiquing her nude body in a full-length mirror, prompting our realization that she may have some serious body issues contributing to her depression.
Tambor has been praised for his performance as Maura (left), and the praise is well-deserved. In the pilot, his ability to emote sadness and longing enabled him to realistically portray a person with a secret that they simultaneously dread and welcome telling - someone desperate to lead an authentic life.
The rest of the cast did well, too, but their performances paled in comparison to Tambor's. I didn't sense a strong familial connection (the dinner scene felt forced to me), but Duplass and Hoffmann were able to affect a strong (and subtly sexual) twin sibling relationship. Landecker succeeded in establishing the distance between her and her husband, but her interactions with her former girlfriend came across as awkward.
While other critics have referenced Tambor's key line, "It is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see," I contend that the most elegant character establishment dialogue went to Light. When asked why she didn't take any vinyl records in the divorce, her character replied, "You know I don't care for music."
There is a large and persistent elephant in the room. As great as it is to see another well-depicted transgender character, I can't ignore that Tambor is a cisgender man. Why didn't a transgender woman get cast for this role?
Public awareness of transgender issues is improving, but most people still have difficulty naming a transgender actor, nevermind a fully-formed, multidimensional transgender character. This isn't about typecasting transgender actors, it's about recognizing the reality that any roles (cisgender or transgender) for transgender actors are hard to come by, and competition from cisgender actors doesn't help.
As Maura, Tambor is shedding much-needed light on the transgender experience, but isn't it also important to acknowledge that the stories of the oppressed are often best told by the oppressed themselves? Hollywood (usually) knows to stay away from blackface, so why is there so much enthusiasm for transface?
There might be cause for optimism: in a recent interview for TransHollywood, Soloway said:
"If Amazon orders the series, we'll sketch out the first season in a more detailed way. We're consulting with some great trans women (Jenny Boylan and Zackary Drucker) to help tell Maura's story. We're absolutely heeding the call for accurate media representations of the trans community in media. In addition, beyond the Maura character, if we get picked up, we plan to use trans actors in major roles in multiple storylines."
Also, while there are certainly aspects of Maura's story that I identified with, I found myself not connecting to her character as well as to Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black. I hope that if we see more of Transparent, we'll also see more diversity in the cast. Perhaps the scene depicting Maura's transgender support group was foreshadowing the introduction of a character(s) who is a transgender person of color?
My nitpicking notwithstanding, Transparent has great potential. If Amazon picks it up, and if Soloway can resist the temptation to dip into tropes and sensationalism, then we may be looking at another important example of progress towards the normalization of depictions of authentic transgender lives in mainstream entertainment.