This Year’s Best TV: Streaming – Transparent.
WARNING: This may contain spoilers. I have avoided this as best I can, but there’s no pleasing some people.
Transparent entered its second season last year. Amazon Studios flagship (definition-actually good) programme about a middle-class family in Los Angeles and the effects of the family patriarch transitioning from male to female. It was really rather good. One of the biggest successes of this show is that everyone is well rounded and has light and shade. It deals with everything so even-handedly, in such an adult, sensible way it actively makes you feel irrational whilst watching it. It is a show that is less judgemental than most people are. Shall we see how it did such a thing? I think we shall.
The way this show has dealth with radical feminism is fascinating. Characters have important discussion but are not mouthpieces of ideologies and are there to be that and only that. The characters don’t act like preening whinging Lisa Simpsons on Death-Con One, but they act like intellectuals and academics… because they are! Does that make them good people? Maybe not all of them. Does that make them bad? Definitely not all of them. Some of them are sensible and have personal stories leading them to where they are now. Some have personal stories that have left them to be somewhat misguided and over-sensitive; the line ‘Penises are a lot of women’s triggers’ coming at a time when a debate about trigger warnings in classrooms is starting.
There are also elements of transphobia in parts of the feminist community within the show’s characters that come at a time where seasoned feminist (or feminazi, if you want to drag your knuckles about it, you damn dirty ape), Germaine Greer said some things that I don’t truly understand the reasoning behind, but can be construed as transphobic. That’s all I’ll say on the topic as I’m not clever enough to say anymore. Similarly to the exploration of feminism through well-developed characters, sexuality is explored, not through fetishisation but through the eyes of and the desires of the characters. Throughout the season many of the main characters go through their own sexual transitions, I won’t give anything away but it’s a prevalent theme in Ali’s (Gaby Hoffman) and Sarah’s (Amy Landecker) stories. These stories are done tenderly without sentimentality. Sometimes brutal, but always honest, tackling complex ideas head on without any unneccesary sentimentality.
One of the more headline grabbing elements of the show is the spotlight on trans issues, and the way it addresses this is (refreshingly as a viewer and human, boringly as a review) incredibly adult and even handed and well done. Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, who is AMAZING) isn’t a saint because she’s trans. She isn’t a saint full stop. When she presented as a man, she was a terrible father. Now, she’s a better ‘mopa’ than she ever was a papa. Her transition isn’t over, but it defines her less and less. She is a woman throughout the series and there’s no question of it anymore, however, she has a life outside of that. She has friendships, a community, struggles and issues of her own. Being trans comes into it but it isn’t the be all and end all of her character or the series.
Throughout the season there are flashbacks to early 1930s Berlin. The characters in these sequences are as problematic as their modern counterparts. There is an early trans story that shows a lot of tolerance for a burgeoning fascist dictatorship, but thankfully stops short of romanticising the hangover of the Weimar republic, for fear it becoming another iteration of Cabaret or Bent. Not everyone is tolerant, happy and living side by side until then there were Nazis. Germany isn’t split between LGBT and Black shirts. Jewish mothers still worry that their children are unruly and are out too late. Victims of regimes are not martyrs.
The secondary characters are also well developed nuggets of fun. Shelly (Judith Light) is more than just a typical mother, we also learn more in this season about Rabbi Raquel Fein (Katrhyn Hahn) who is a sexually active female Rabbi. Usually fictional Rabbis sit around with beards in black coats talking about Brisket. Why have I never seen a fictional sexually active female rabbi before? Many congregations have female rabbis. And more importantly, what is brisket?
There are very few qualms I have with this show. Season two has been a fantastic extension of what was already a fantastic show. However, it is described as a comedy. This is something I struggle with. Speaking with my comedy hat on (it’s got a novelty bobble), not strictly speaking, no. It’s more of a drama that focusses around a family. It has steaks but they are more emotional than dramatic. It’s not as bad as many ‘comedy dramas’ that are neither dramatic, nor funny, but it is definitely not laugh a minute and it doesn’t try to be. That’s not so much a criticism of the show, but a criticism of how it’s been billed.
One of the biggest cons in this series is that the characters are so well rounded that when someone is irritating, crass or rude it’s very, infuriatingly, relatable and identifiable. So, on that note, I have this to say about a vast proportion of the leading cast, not of the actors, who roundly do a fantastic job, but of the characters. The kids aren’t alright. Sarah, Ali and Josh (Jay Duplass) Pfefferman are all self-absorbed, self-obsessed, conceited little shits who I wouldn’t cross the road to avoid, but I would inwardly groan if I saw them coming my way. I’ve just come out of Premier to get some peanuts and put a tenner on the heating, I do not need Josh Pfefferman! They have reasons to be the way they are. They have had an opulent, spoilt upbringing from dysfunctional parents, which had nothing to do with being transgender. They are more bearable in this season than in the last, more relatable and more nuanced. They’re growing. Maura’s growing. The show is growing.
It is refreshing to know that the same network that are perpetrating the sin of employing Jeremy Reactionarybiggot Von Producerpunch Clarkson, is also making television like this. Well done Amazon. Now pay some fucking tax.