As a queer Jewess living in Los Angeles, I was excited to see that a show about a Jewish family living in Los Angeles with one or more queer members had found a place in the world. And in the case of Transparent, Jill Soloway’s nuanced and charming new series that marks Amazon’s first foray into Netflix-quality show production, queer doesn’t just mean gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans. When it comes to the members of the Pfefferman family, they’re all the original definition of queer. Gender identity is the least of this group’s problems.
The pilot episode opens with Gaby Hoffmann’s disheveled hipster Ali getting out of bed alone, with only a dirty sweatshirt and a cup of coffee. I have a soft spot for Gaby Hoffmann because we share a first name (one b!) and because I once saw her pee her pants at a Q&A in Brooklyn and still stay onstage to answer questions. Ali tells her BFF Carrie Brownstein that she wants to make an Urban Outfitters tabletop book based on Are You My Mother? called Are You My Soul Mate? That is really rough and pathetic. Instead of being like, “Giiiiiiirl, no,” Brownstein is like, “Yeah, maybe.” Does that make her a good friend or a bad one?
Meanwhile, her brother Josh (Jay Duplass) lies awake anxiously beside a sleeping young blonde. When she wakes up, he plays games on her breasts very metaphorically, like how he is probably playing games with her heart. The oldest sibling, Amy Landecker’s Sara, is a harried upper-middle-class mom with a Hispanic housekeeper and a husband who leaves without saying good-bye in the morning so we know their relationship is super solid.
The kids’ father (Jeffrey Tambor) calls each of them, and Ali heads to Josh’s, where he’s babysitting a band named Glitterish, which includes a teenager on triangle and the girl he’s sleeping with. Ali chides him for being a grown man who only has sex with young girls. Sara runs into her ex, Tammy (The Office’s Melora Hardin), the coolest, pantsuit-iest lesbian mom ever. Tammy’s kid with her second wife goes to school where Sara was dropping off her own children, ages 5 and 6. If it weren’t completely obvious Sara is going to cheat on her husband, it is now — and with whom.
Pre-family dinner, the kids speculate that their dad has cancer and Josh idly hopes he’ll give them money now, rather than leave it in the will — for tax purposes. They are all selfish little shits.
Finally, we meet the titular trans parent: the family patriarch, Mort. As happens with siblings, the secrets and judgements fly. Ali reminds Sara that she and Tammy used to “lez it up” in college, and while Sara writes it off as youthful experimentation, Ali claims they were planning to adopt a child together. Meanwhile, Ali is more connected to her brother, Josh, as they pour over their father’s record collection, stopping on Jim Croce, whom Ali married in a ceremony when she was 4. They hum his hit “Operator,” and Ali muses, “I’ll never be happy again.” It is very on-the-nose, but exactly the kind of casual sadness Ali exudes.
The Pfeffermans sit down for barbecue takeout dinner, and Sara dotes on their father, wiping his face for him mid-meal. Tambor, who was wonderfully zany on Arrested Development, has a great dry delivery on the line, “We come from shtetl people. Your Grandma Rose actually ate lettuce with her bare hands.” Then he says he has an announcement to make. The children all talk over him and each other about a possible cancer diagnosis. Mort seems to have more on his mind, but chickens out and tells the kids he’s selling their family home. Josh is furious, wanting to flip the property. Mort wants to give the house to Sara and her husband, Len. Ali wonders where her father will live if not there. The siblings fight — Len is deemed a “sugar daddy,” Josh chides Ali on being unable to handle money, and she bites back about his dating inappropriate women.
Later, Mort writes Ali a check, and she’s in denial about both her poor finances and her depression. Finally, the kids leave and Mort strips down, left to himself. He calls an unseen someone and says, “I couldn’t do it.” Here we go.
In the next scene, he puts on a housedress and lets down his hair to read the paper. Mort becomes Maura.
The revealing of secrets continues in vignette: Josh, who claimed he had a concert to attend, shows up instead at Rita’s house. Rita is an older woman, very unlike the lithe Barbie in his bed at the beginning of the episode. Josh submits, crawling on the floor between the legs of a mother figure. Turns out Josh humps and dumps twentysomethings to hide his real attachment to an older woman. Total whiplash! The scene comes almost out of nowhere and is the tonal turning point in the show. Is this a comedy? Shit is about to get real. Too real. So real, you’ll want to look away. Don’t.
The next morning, Sara is joined in the bathroom by Len (Rob Huebel). She comments that she might spend some time with Tammy, the “lesbian she knew in college.” (Right. Sure.) Len isn’t threatened, and in typical straight, male fashion, says simply, “I like lesbians.” Sara’s very serious love for a woman is dismissed as nonthreatening to a male presence. It irks her and me. Bisexual women everywhere sigh at once, again being invisible. Len, you idiot.
Ali visits her mother, a type-A nonstop talker who tells her, “I wouldn’t believe a word your father says.” She fusses over Ed, her new husband, who ironically can no longer speak.
Maura attends a very diverse trans support group, and Tambor delivers a lovely little monologue about the humiliation of being outed in public. She admits she failed to come out to her children, as she promised she would at last week’s meeting. “It just wasn’t time,” she says. Then, she adds: “They are so selfish. I don’t know how it is I raised three people who can not see beyond themselves.”
Cut to: Ali sees a lot of herself. She gets home, gets naked, and lays around, checking out her body. She is unhappy with what she sees.
At school, Sara is happy to see Tammy, as they reminisce about a terrible Thanksgiving spent together before Sara’s parents split up. She invites Tammy to look at her dad’s old house, under the guise of helping with interior decorating. Oh, she’s gonna be decorating the interior ... of Sara’s vagina.
Ali gets a hot personal trainer because she wants to change her body, and he asks her what she thinks she needs. She replies, “I could use some discipline.” It’s nice to see her chip away at some of that defensive denial she has around her family. Unlike what Maura said, Ali seems to be the one sibling that sees other people so clearly, but can not see herself.
Sara’s slow seduction of Tammy continues. Their chemistry is electric, and we can see on their faces that they know something is going to happen when they go up to the house. Landecker and Hardin circle each other like predator and prey. It’s hot as fuck. They kiss.
Josh has missionary sex with his twee baby and tells her, “I love you.” She’s mad he came home so late the night before. He tells her he has a song he wants her band to cover. It’s “Operator” by Jim Croce, which includes the line, “Won’t you help me place this call?” For the Pfeffermans, there is so much communication that needs to happen. What is going to help them place their calls?
The song continues to play over Ali, who seems to get off on the mean trainer slapping her ass and demeaning her.
Ali’s trainer counts down from ten to one. Sara and Tammy make out. As they part, Maura appears. Sara is shocked.
“Dad?” she asks. Is this woman in front of her actually her father?
Maura’s face is unreadable. “Hi, girls,” she says. Blackout.
Well, that’s one way for everyone to come out of the closet.
- A transgender person is someone who identifies as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth.
- Maura is pre-op, presumably. Meaning she hasn’t had surgery to change her body to match her gender identity. When she is dressed as Mort, she is performing the male gender, and when she is Maura, she is female.
- Because Maura identifies as female and trans, she is not a “cross-dresser” or “drag queen.” She is a woman, or trans woman.
- I’ve decided to use male pronouns for Mort and female pronouns for Maura, although as the series progresses and Maura becomes more prevalent, I’ll probably stick to female pronouns only. (Unless Tambor’s character specifies otherwise.)