If you missed Jill Soloway’s dramedy series “Transparent,” that’s because it was never on TV. It’s part of the wave of Internet programming outside primetime’s mandate to connect with the widest audience and skirt controversy. Instead, this series on Amazon Prime is free to explore perspectives rarely seen in broadcast TV.
“Transparent” follows the Pfeffermans — three adult kids and their parents — through a host of personal transitions: divorce, abortion, death, and the gender transition of parent Maura (née Mort, played by Jeffrey Tambor). Maura’s revelation, that she is a transgender woman, organizes the 10-episode arc. Commentary about the acclaimed show has largely explored the important and complex identity politics of representing trans people. But gender identity is not the only primetime-unfriendly theme here. Religion is baked into the world of the show, as is sexuality.
It wasn’t the heimish and pitch-perfect dialogue, the exploration of Maura’s identity, or the family dynamics that haunted me for days after watching this series straight through. It was the show’s cosmology, where justice is not tied up with expressions of gender and sexuality.
We encounter eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), bored, in her bright and sprawling Los Angeles mini-mansion. She finds herself suddenly in lust and love with a former girlfriend — while married to the father of her small children. And she’s honest about it, splitting up from her spouse rather than proceeding in secret. This is where, in broadcast TV, she would be punished. An invisible hand would push her back to her husband or force her to pay an ultimate price for prioritizing sex and intimacy. Instead, we see ramifications (so many ramifications!), but not punishment. We see fallout, but not retribution, a subtle, profound distinction. In “Transparent” land, there is no Fate nudging people to where we expect them; there’s just the mess that comes from life’s tough choices.
The same absence of cosmic intervention plays out in Maura’s transition. She’s warned by another trans woman that the price she’ll pay for her transition is her family, a thought as heartbreaking as it is inconceivable at the start of the series, as we watch the Pfeffermans lovingly eat Chinese food, lovingly banter and sprawl in their childhood home.
While Maura endures terrifying ruptures in her life and familial relations in order to heal that deep rupture of a misconstrued gender, we see dominos falling, systems and results — not karma. She’s not punished for choosing to embody her gender, but she does suffer. There is harsh fallout from making these choices in a transphobic world. Maura is not the perfect victim, and the character retains the depth and complication of a person scarred by a lifetime of staggering lies. Maura is both hero and villain of her own story.
“Transparent” also explores religion, a divisive and thus taboo topic on TV. The show weaves in questions about Jewish practice and identity rarely explored in pop culture. In a flashback, we meet thirteen-year-old Ali boycotting her Bat Mitzvah. She rails against her green taffeta dress until the conversation turns to God. “Honest,” Ali asks Maura, “Do you actually believe in God?” The retort, classically: “That has nothing to do with your Bat Mitzvah.”
But the conversation doesn’t end there. Maura’s expressions of doubt and struggle don’t conflict with her Jewishness, exactly: unlike in the Christianity of American TV, faith isn’t the kernel of her religious identity. And unlike on primetime, in the world of “Transparent,” you can question the existence of God without a resolution. Complexities just sit there — ambiguous, thorny, and unresolved — like in real life.
On her would-be Bat Mitzvah day, Ali is home alone when a caterer arrives, uninformed of the cancelation. Out from her teenage monotone, Ali launches into a rousing show for the stranger, chanting Torah with interpretive dance and grand gesticulations. Her portion, Lech Lecha, suggests there’s a price to pay for not going forth, for delaying or clinging too closely to one’s old home for too long, but it recognizes that there’s also a price to pay for leaving.
The Jewishness of “Transparent,” swirled in with the queerness, contains traditionalism and atheism, boundary-crossing mixed with obligation, and the many layers that make up identity.