Amazon Studios’s most critically acclaimed and awarded web series, Transparent, was created by American non-binary writer-director, Jill Soloway. The show, which premiered on February 6, 2014, has been renewed for its fifth season (slated for 2018).
Transparent is the story of Maura Pfefferman (born Mort Pfefferman) – played by Jeffrey Tambor – and her family and friends, as she transitions from male to female, comes out to her family, and begins a second life. Tambor has won multiple awards, including two Emmys and a Golden Globe Award, for his wonderful and nuanced portrayal of Maura. The rest of the cast and crew have also won accolades.
The show is lauded as a landmark in transgender representation on television and film, with Soloway enacting a “transfirmative action program”, where showmakers hire transgender applicants in preference to cisgender people. As of August 2014, over 80 transgender people have worked on the show — including Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst who act as both consultants and co-producers. Multiple trans actors and actresses have featured on the show, both as part of the main and recurring cast.
The first season of Transparent introduces Maura and her eclectic family. The show starts off like most other international TV dramas, but the story flows fluidly – much like the gender spectrum that Transparent attempts to sensitize us to.
We see Maura finally grow comfortable in her skin after many years of struggling with her identity, with only one final hurdle left: to come out to her children. Her children are an odd bunch too. Sarah (Amy Landecker), a suburban housewife with children, is going through a crisis with her sexuality as she cheats on her husband Len (Rob Huebel) with her college ex-girlfriend, Tammy (Melora Hardin); Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is the pansexual wild child of the family who seems to be perpetually broke and unemployed; and the youngest, Josh (Jay Duplass) is a successful record producer who is a Casanova, but fails to form any long-lasting romantic relationships. While this premise may sound rather ordinary in today’s age of drama, Transparent has a sublime way of telling its story that can leave you enthralled.
The first season sees Maura attempting to reconnect with her children and ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light), all of whom have drifted apart and leading their own little dysfunctional lives. Maura’s coming out does provide relief for her guilt as a mostly absentee father, and she takes pride in being the new “Moppa” of her children, who mourn the loss of their father while connecting with Maura. We also see in flashbacks, Mort’s anxiety with his assigned male identity and secret escapades to crossdressing conventions to provide himself with some semblance of relief.
Due to the way the show is made, the viewer is truly able to appreciate Maura’s struggles. Solloway and the other writers stick to the microcosm of her little world in Los Angeles, while also dealing with larger issues in every episode.
The second season of Transparent tackles childhood sexual abuse, fatherhood, BDSM, class differences, feminism, sexual intimacy, and the whole debate over the female gender identity, when Ali unknowingly takes Maura to the feminist Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival – which, shockingly, only welcomes women who have been biologically assigned so since birth, and not trans women. We see Maura having sex for the first time as a woman as she begins a relationship with Vicki (Angelica Huston). The storyline for the second season gets darker and deeper, delving into the psyche of the Pfefferman family and Maura’s ancestral roots, as we explore the theme of transgenerational trauma through Gittel (trans actress Hari Nef), Maura’s aunt, who came out as trans in the 1930s, but never made it out of the Nazi regime in Berlin. However, it is the family’s Jewish faith that gets them through tougher times, and Transparent shows this recurrent theme in all its seasons — especially the latest — without reducing it to a creepy religious propaganda.
The third season is mellow and touching, and explores the concepts of age and gender reassignment surgery, along with the longstanding stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in the transgender community. Maura faces transphobia for the first time, and realizes that her past privileged background as a white, male college professor may have led to a sense of entitlement. She realizes that she may have hurt people around her — especially the other trans sisters she befriended, all of whom have been ostracized because of their gender identity. We see old and young trans characters when Maura starts living with them in the Los Angeles LGBTQ Centre, and the feeling of pride and community associated with it.
The fourth season, which aired this September, is probably show’s lightest till date, and focuses more on the intersection of Maura’s Jewish faith and her identity.
One of the most appealing things about Transparent is how its stories are set in a very grounded reality. The show flips back and forth between Maura and the rest of the characters as they navigate their own very human and sometimes surreal experiences, as well as the larger, overarching topic of transgender and other LGBTQ+ identities. Even after four seasons, the show remains as fresh and unapologetically raw as ever, and always manages to strike a chord with you. This is a rarity in today’s television.