Wednesday, July 22, 2015

So Thin: Amazon’s Transparent

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

It’s become an article of faith of late that pay television trumps network cable every time, mainly because of the former's gutsiness in tackling taboo subject matter and also because of its unfettered freedoms regarding the use of language and the depictions of nudity, sexual situations and violence. Obviously pay TV can be more adult than the network fare but just often it’s no better than any bad network show airing at any given hour. I long ago gave up on Mad Men, which after its promising first season, was content to stay in the shallow end of the dramatic pool. The first season of Orange is the New Black, which is the only one I’ve seen, was rife with crass characterization and pretentious, overwritten dialogue that rang false when it dripped from so many of the show’s character’s lips. Entourage, except for Jeremy Piven’s Hollywood super agent Ari Gold (and a few guest stars), was utterly unwatchable. Curb Your Enthusiasm, played out like the unfunny cousin of network TV’s Seinfeld, which was co-created by Curb’s star Larry David, but unlike Curb Your Enthusiasm, not afflicted with him in front of the camera. And I only lasted two episodes of Girls, which struck me as fake to the extreme.

Meanwhile, network TV boasts The Good Wife, still the best show on American TV (cable’s The Americans, in my estimation, is second best) and Elementary, which has the best character development of any currently running program (each episode adds another fascinating new layer to the characters of its Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.). There are also a number of new (and pleasingly renewed ) network TV shows from last season, including Gotham, Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder and Agent Carter, which either tweaked or upended formulaic TV tropes to fresh and welcome effect. In that light, I can’t help but be baffled why Amazon Instant Video’s streamed cable show Transparent is so popular (it’s already been renewed for a third season before the second one has even aired) and getting such good press. Other than for its basic original storyline, about elderly transgender senior Morty now Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) navigating the transition in the face of family and friends, the show doesn’t deserve the kudos. It’s the very definition of mediocre television.

That’s unfortunate as Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor, whose talk show sidekick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, from the 90s, remains one of the most compelling protagonists to appear on the small screen. Sexist, boorish, needy, vain and malicious, Hank was nonetheless one of the most fascinating and fully realized characters I’ve ever seen. Often cringe inducing – as when he rediscovered his Judaism in one of the show’s best episodes – Hank was reminiscent of so many people whether in show business or out of it. Transparent, alas, allows him little real emoting to do, except in a few key scenes; otherwise Morty /Maura just mopes around and looks sad. It’s not much of a part for an actor of Tambor’s talent and calibre to essay, though I don’t doubt he took it on because it seemed groundbreaking at the time. After Laverne Cox’s turn as a male to female transgender prisoner in Orange is the New Black (and unlike Tambor she actually is transgendered in real life), one can’t even make that claim. (Tambor did win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Series, Comedy or Musical, for his thespian efforts in Transparent though he was actually more entertaining in his recurring role as a transvestite judge on the revolutionary 80s TV series Hill Street Blues.)

Transparent, which won the Golden Globe award last year for Best Television Series-Musical or Comedy and has just been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series in the forthcoming Emmy Awards –an inconsistency in description to be sure though it’s essentially a drama with some comedic (but not amusing) overtones – simply doesn’t impress. It’s flaccidly written, indifferently acted by some of the key cast and emotionally flat and banal. Created by Jill Soloway, whose own father has come out as transgender, Transparent, which strikes me as a rather lame pun for a title, makes the obvious and basic point that Maura, knowing what she finally wants at age 68, to be a woman, is far less confused and lost than her wayward children, Sarah (Amy Landecker) who has left her husband and children for Tammy (Melora Hardin) the woman she used to be involved with in university, Josh (Jay Duplass), a music producer who is a bust in his personal and professional life and, the youngest, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), jobless and not sure what she wants in life, including as regards her sexuality. Maura’s ex wife, Shelly (Judith Light) is for her part stifled by the responsibility of caring for her Alzheimers’ afflicted husband Ed (Lawrence Pressman). She's also still baffled by the abrupt end of her marriage to Morty which she terminated when he came out to her as a cross dresser but not as a transsexual, twenty years earlier.

Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman and Amy Landecker.

The show is thus laid out as a simple thread emanating from Maura’s coming out to her children one at a time and then to her ex-wife, while weaving in some flashbacks to Morty’s early days as a budding cross dresser and contrasting them with how Maura is received (both positively and negatively) including within the LGBT community, by those she interacts with in the present. It’s not as interesting as it sounds, perhaps because far too much air time is devoted to Maura’s selfish, self absorbed kids.Sarah and Josh, in particular, are insufferable individuals, whiny, childish and immature and not people you want to spend a whole TV season with, even if Transparent’s ten episodes only run a half hour each. Landecker and Duplass are also not especially scintillating actors; the best I can say about them say is that they’re believable in their roles but, again, that’s not enough if you don’t much care about their issues or plight. We’re supposed, for example, to intuit that Josh’s relationship with his female and older babysitter when he was just fifteen has adversely affected his adult relationships with woman but the execution of that relationship is played out in such a trite manner that it barely resisters emotionally if it even does that at all. (A twist regarding said relationship in the final episode of season one is simply ridiculous.) Hoffman is better, Ali has some really interesting edges, but the show seems set up to mostly stick her in some outrĂ©, even outrageous, sexual situations, somewhat awkwardly directed, ranging from an attempted threesome with two studly African American men to a botched date with a female to male transgendered person who still has a vagina.

Only late in the show does Ali’s spiritual thirst - she opted out of her Bat Mitzvah and now regrets it – come up but it and the portrayal of the Pffeffermans, especially the children, as assimilated Jews who barely know anything about the basic tenets of their religion is not dealt with satisfactorily or in that much depth. Like most cable shows, Transparent does not shy away from identifiably Jewish characterization – which is still a bit of an issue on network TV where the suits are still not entirely comfortable with the portrayal of their protagonists as obviously Jewish - but, frankly, the family’s Judaism is mere window dressing, an ethnographic detail that seems stuck in merely to make the show seem more ‘genuine’; the appearance of Kathryn Hahn, fine as Raquel, a lonely rabbi who, inexplicably, falls for Josh, doesn’t really change that dynamic. If the Pffeffermans weren’t Jewish, the show would not be appreciably different, (Light’s shameless overacting as the nosy, appearance conscious Jewish mother comes closest to stereotype.) Contrast that with past, courageous network shows like thirtysomething and Northern Exposure, where the character’s Jewish religion existed for a reason, to address the place and feelings of Jews in still majority Christian America. (There was more to those great series than that, of course, but the Jewish aspect was an important, necessary component of them.)

Oddly enough, even concerning its main focus, Maura’s transgenderism, Transparent doesn’t really deliver. We get the obligatory educational facts of her journey, from the use of hormones to which bathroom she can enter safely – neither, it appears - as well as a warning/prophecy that her family ultimately will let her down as she reveals her ‘drastic’ decision to change sex, delivered by Maura’s friend Davina, a transsexual, played by transsexual actress Alexandra Billings. (She’s quite good in the role.) Yet, in other key ways, the show skirts the issues it raises. When Morty, in 1994, spends a weekend at a resort, attended by cross dressers and their significant others, we understand it’s a life altering event for him, a place to be ‘happy and safe' in female guise. Yet the resort sequences only play a part in a portion of that episode instead of utilizing all of it. (Other cable shows like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos never stuck to the formula of giving everyone equal air time in each episode. Pay cable, if nothing else, should be willing to and often does suspend the traditional structural rules of network television. Soloway, who wrote for four season of Six Feet Under, certainly knew how to do that but Transparent never does though, to be fair, few of the shorter cable programs, ie: Hung, United States of Tara or House of Lies, ever did, either.)

Except for the opening cocktail party where you literally can feel Morty’s thrill at seeing so many men who are like him dressed to the nines as women, the episode doesn’t really address the issue of what femininity means for these straight men – oddly, we never even get to view the beauty pageant that many of them participate in - except for the interesting revelation that a considerable number of the attending cross dressers actually disdain the men who want to go further and permanently alter their gender. Is it because they still want to be seen as "real men," as Morty’s fellow attendee Mark/Marcy (a not all that riveting performance by Bradley Whitford from The West Wing) puts it? Or are they secretly jealous of those men who can be a woman in actuality whereas they can only impersonate them from time to time, and something they generally have to hide from their wives, as Morty himself does? The latter reason makes sense to me but the show shies away from that idea. In the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s provocative decision to reveal her transgenderism to the world and all the public discussions it has engendered, from the ‘look’ Jenner has chosen to define herself as a woman to whether she will be a better parent to her children as a female than she was as a male, Transparent appears especially gun shy in its depiction of the ramifications and meanings of Maura’s action. Jennie Livingston’s powerful 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, which delved into the realities of New York’s gay and transgender drag world, more successfully raised all the gender and sexuality issues that Transparent (ostensibly) handles badly.

Bradley Whitford and Jeffrey Tambor

It’s left to one character, Ali’s conflicted best friend, Sydney, (played by actor/singer Carrie Brownstein, of rock band Sleater-Kinney, who is excellent) to make you realize how superficial the other characters and the show actually is. When you’re more curious about what makes Sydney or Rabbi Raquel tick than any of the series’ leads, you know something’s not working. Yes, sometimes the show comes, briefly, to life, as when Maura confronts her hostile former son-in-law Len (Rob Huebel) at a Shabbat dinner or reveals her deep, painful disappointment with the behaviour of her children during the Trans Got Talent show she is performing in but mostly it cruises along at low, dull speed. Even the show’s most powerful and rawest scene, in the season finale wherein a livid Maura confronts Ali about how her youngest child really feels about her and the money she is always dispensing to her, comes along a little too late to be fully effective. That honest sequence and the reality of Maua’s own self-absorption would be an intricate, revelatory part of a better well written show than Transparent, and one that built to a strong climax instead of being lazily forced into a specific episode as a hook to cajole the viewer into returning for the next season.

In the years to come, I suspect, the whole notion of human beings changing their gender – in whatever permutation, full sex reassignment or not – will likely come to be seen as a mundane, matter-of-fact feature of one’s life, just as being gay or lesbian is now for most people in the West. But as long as gender and sexuality remain hot button topics, and they will for awhile yet, it behooves issue oriented shows like Transparent to at least live up to (or aspire to) the provocative complexity and nuances of the subject matter on tap. Needless to say, the thin gruel that is Transparent fails to do just that.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

1 comment:

  1. To be fair, I did not read the full article, however I used the search term "Why is transparent show so popular?"

    I'm a gay man, & honestly watching it I rolled my eyes and by the 2nd episode (first season) I had to fast forward as I squirmed in the seen with Light & Tambor in the bathroom...

    I don't see the art or even the ploy this is how people / families behave privately or publicly. So, if I, was uneasy how is this gaudy, over the top series so popular.

    While I keep an eye open for other series, thank God for Grey's Anatomy!