Josh Pfefferman and his younger sister Ali, both in their mid-twenties, sit on the floor of the living room in their childhood home. He holds a Jim Croce record out to her.
“Look at that face. Look at that. They would never let me sign a guy like this right now. Look at that schnoz. You could not get that nose on TV today in a million years.”
“I loved him so much.” Ali accepts the record, holds it to her face.
“You married him.”
“I did,” she agrees. “When I was four years old. We had a ceremony. I’ll never be happy again.”
Over her last words, Josh begins singing: “Operator…” She joins him on the next line, “Would you help me place this call?” As they stumble over the lyrics, we cut to the occasion that has brought them back to their family home—dinner with their father, Mort, and older sister, Sarah.
So concludes the first ten minutes of one of Amazon Prime’s newest original series, Transparent. The show is only one of many attempts by Amazon to keep up with Netflix, but it appears to be the first successful one. Last year, Amazon announced that Transparent was the most-watched show on Prime, and this year, it won two Golden Globes—one for best comedy series, and one to Jeffrey Tambor for best actor in a comedy series.
After the buzz about Tambor’s acceptance speech died down, the questions began about whether Transparent was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing for trans folks. As with most such questions, there was no obvious answer, but Amazon seems to have surprised a lot of people with its willingness to support trans voices.
Online television, as a genre, is very young. Amazon started producing original content in 2013, and still has only managed to keep a handful of original series afloat. The medium is unusual as compared to traditional television in that an instant, large viewership isn’t the only metric by which shows can succeed. As Netflix’s CEO put it, “Internet TV is an environment where smaller or quirkier shows can prosper because they can find a big enough audience over time.”
It is not just “quirkier” shows that can succeed better as online television, but those whose subject matter would be viewed as too marginal or controversial by other networks. Online television itself is a marginal medium, which does not distinctly fit into any previous category of entertainment. It is uniquely suited to explore plots and characters that resist easy categorization within American structures of identity.
Thus, while Disney’s original series Good Luck Charlie tentatively features a character with two moms—and is quickly abused for it—Netflix’s Orange is the New Black makes the decidedly more important decision to cast a queer-identifying actor, Laverne Cox, to play a queer character. That choice was a subversive one given the landscape of queer representation in television. Transparent is the second online show in as many years to feature a trans character in a large role.
The ungodly cutesiness of Transparent’s title should not be held against it, except insofar as it hints at a broader misunderstanding of the nuances of being a trans parent. Disappointingly, Transparent creator Jill Soloway did not cast a trans actor to play Maura. She did hire many trans actors, writers, and crewmembers, in what she describes as a “transfirmative action” policy. Prominent trans cast members include Alexandra Billings, who in 2005 made history as the first transgender actor to play a transgender character on television.
Soloway also seems more aware than Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan of the importance of trans voices in a project like this one. Last year, at a panel on LGBTQ television, Kohan rejected Soloway’s hiring process, saying, “What you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art.” Soloway responded, “I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers’ room full of men and we can write women just fine.’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”
In the same interview, Soloway noted that as a cis writer, she was “always going to be otherizing Maura in some way.” The truth of this is reflected in the fact that Maura’s identity is the least fluid of those of the four main characters on the show. While her three children consider their sex lives and sexualities in complicated ways, Maura is a static, sure force. It’s as though Soloway is hesitant to allow any vacillation in Maura’s identity for fear people will see her as less authentically transgender. The irony that the actor who plays Maura, Jeffrey Tambor, is not authentically transgender does not seem to have occurred to her.
Disappointing as that casting choice is, I find it hard to stay mad at a show that is still doing so many amazing things for trans folks and the entire queer community. Besides showing one trans experience in so much detail, the show provides a wide array of options for what healthy (and unhealthy) sex and relationships can look like. Not one of the characters seems sure of how to handle their gender identity or sexuality; they’re all just working things out, and we get to watch them succeed and fail in equal measure.
It is this awkward, often cringe-worthy, realism that saves Transparent from falling into cliché. The Jim Croce story in the first episode is the epitome of the show’s clumsy, natural pacing. Every scene is given this much attention, so that potentially forced plot points still feel thoughtfully reached. We see what is mundane about this family far more than we see what is unique about them; Maura’s trans identity is not explored in particular depth, but neither is it held out as the only facet of her personality. Every moment she and her children share is necessary to understanding who they each are as individuals. There is no filler here, and nothing sticks out.
At the end of the first episode, Josh asks his girlfriend Kaya, a member of the band he produces, to cover Jim Croce’s “Operator.” The move is both an effort to convince himself that his relationship is working (Kaya cares about the things he cares about), and to convince himself that the band is working (they can play good music well, even if it isn’t their own). This artificial attempt at art serves very well as synecdoche for the show as a whole: though much of the plot feels contrived, it is so elegantly contrived that I can’t help but forgive it. Though Jeffrey Tambor is telling Soloway’s father’s story, and not his own, he still tells it well.