New Television — From the April 2016 issue

New Television

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“If we want to know what American normality is — i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal — we can trust television,” David Foster Wallace once wrote. Can we? It’s a chicken-or-egg situation. Does television teach us what’s normal? Or does it only absorb new social realities after a quorum of Americans has gotten on board? Certainly a number of recent shows have taken it upon themselves to educate and enlighten their audiences, with story lines about everyday sexism (Master of None), racial profiling (The Carmichael Show), and the experience of undocumented immigrants (Jane the Virgin). These moral tales tend to be gentle and earnest, like the little allegories about diversity that used to run on Sesame Street. Then there’s the Amazon show TRANSPARENT, in which Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) recites a poem by Eileen Myles at a lesbian bowling night:

I always put my pussy
in the middle of trees
like a waterfall
like a doorway to God
like a flock of birds.

The title of Transparent is a pun. The show is about a transgender woman in her late sixties named Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), who lived for most of her life as a man named Mort. Under this name, Maura married and had three children, whom she raised in Pacific Palisades, in Los Angeles. She had a public career as an academic and a private collection of silk kaftans. At the beginning of the first season, Maura, now divorced and retired, wanders the vacant corridors of her memory-laden house in the drapery that makes her feel free. When the time finally arrives to break the news to her family, she summons her three thirtysomething children home, like King Lear, but her nerve fails her. She watches glumly as her progeny squabble and gnaw on take-out barbecue, oblivious to her turmoil. “I made a commitment here last week that I was going to come out to my kids and I didn’t do it,” she tells her support group later. Tambor, as Maura, embodies all the regret and hope of a character with decades of suppressed longing behind her. “They are so selfish,” she says. “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

The major theme of Transparent is established here, at the outset of the series: the thin line between self-actualization and self-absorption. To be sure, the Pfefferman children are real pieces of work. The eldest, Sarah (Amy Landecker), begins the show as a twenty-first-century rendition of the unhappy housewife described in The Feminine Mystique. She lives with her husband (Rob Huebel), who works in real estate, and their two children in one of those big TV houses full of stainless-steel appliances. We see her preparing the kids’ lunches in bento boxes and driving them to their private school as “Free to Be . . . You and Me” plays on the stereo. Josh (Jay Duplass), the middle sibling, is a joylessly promiscuous A&R man. He inhabits a light-filled condominium with glass balconies on L.A.’s Eastside, and manages a band called Glitterish, whose lead singer, a wispy blonde, he is dating. He, too, has a secret past: as a teenager, he had a sexual relationship with the family babysitter. Josh thinks it was love, but everyone else believes he was molested. In any case, the family harbors unexamined shame about their failure to protect him. The youngest Pfefferman, Ali, is in her early thirties. She is broke, unemployed, and directionless, like an aged-out cast member of Girls who has wandered onto the wrong set.

The first season focuses on Maura’s coming out to each of her children, and on the coincidental upheavals in their lives. By the last episode, Sarah has left her husband for a woman named Tammy Cashman (Melora Hardin), Josh has lost his girlfriend and his job, and Ali still hasn’t figured out what to do with her life. If Maura is an exemplar of self-actualization — the person who, after suffering for so long, finally expresses her true self — her children represent the dark side of a world in which existential decisions are no longer scripted by religious doctrine and social custom but must be discerned through personal exploration. This can result, it turns out, in narcissism and fickleness.

Transparent deploys many of the normalizing strategies of comedic television: the absorption of difference into the nuclear family; the reactionary faux pas (think of the moment in Annie Hall when Diane Keaton tells Woody Allen, “You’re what Grammy Hall would call a ‘real Jew’ ”; in Transparent, a wedding photographer calls Maura “sir”); the sassy supporting character from a different social background who puts the privilege of the main characters into perspective — in this case, Maura’s friend Davina (Alexandra Billings), “a fifty-three-year-old, ex-prostitute, H.I.V.-positive woman-with-a-dick.” There’s also a fair amount of what the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, has called “transplaining.” Through Maura’s experience, several stereotypes and misconceptions about what it means to be trans are addressed. The viewer learns about the range of body modifications that people choose to make, the side effects of taking testosterone and estrogen, and the difference between gender identification and sexual orientation. When Maura’s hormone doctor asks her whether she “tops” or “bottoms,” Maura looks baffled. The doctor’s response — “Mrs. Pfefferman, do yourself a favor and get to know your body” — is directed as much to the audience as it is to Maura, who finds herself suddenly beset by the physical insecurity and sexual uncertainty of an adolescent.

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