I loved Transparent, Amazon’s dreamy dramedy starring Jeffrey Tambor. The ten-episode series explores family and gender and sexuality and how hard it is to be who we are, especially if we don’t want to think about who we were. The show is confident and smart and terrific, and to my great joy it reminds me a lot of another one of my favorite shows ever: Six Feet Under. Transparent creator Jill Soloway was a writer and eventually a co-executive producer on Six Feet Under, so the parallels aren’t coming out of nowhere. (Her feature film, Afternoon Delight, includes a lot of the same themes as well.) Over at Slate, David Haglund calls Transparent SFU’s successor, and I think that’s true. While the Fishers and the Pfeffermans aren’t clones by any stretch, there’s a lot the families have in common. Claire and Ali would definitely be friends, you know?
[I wouldn’t say this article contains spoilers per se, but it does assume you’ve seen all of both SFU and Transparent.]
A 15-year-old boy loses his virginity to an older woman.
Nate and Josh, who both have that slightly needy, slightly scruffy form of attractiveness going on, both have histories where they lost their virginities at 15 to much older women, though those histories play out a little differently: Both characters refer to the experience as terrific and consensual, but Josh’s feels much more predatory. Nate on SFU carried a torch for his aunt’s friend Fiona for a long time, and it’s an experience he looks back on fondly (even if his mother was rightly horrified that her son had sex with a 32-year-old). Nate still has a hard time feeling like a grown-up in his mother’s eyes, and it’s clear that he looks at his history with Fiona as one of the first times he felt really independent. Josh on Transparent is more affected by his babysitter Rita’s vile behavior; we see him struggle to form healthy romantic bonds, and the fact that his parents turned a blind eye to what was pretty obvious behavior erodes his trust in them. In another overlap, the actress who plays Rita, Brett Paesel, also played one of Fiona’s friends on Six Feet Under.
A beautiful rabbi seems like the cure for penile wanderlust.
Again, Nate and Josh overlap here: Nate meets Rabbi Ari (Molly Parker) when she’s overseeing a congregant’s funeral, and he’s drawn to her calm demeanor and her sense of purpose. “You can save me, if that’s what you need to do,” he tells her, which is basically Nate’s dream, to be saved by the reliable, responsible love of a capable woman. (He’s engaged to Brenda when he meets Ari, so the dream is not quite achieved.) Josh has a similar attraction to Rabbi Raquel, whom he falls for, hard; she’s mature and professional and grounded in all the ways that Josh is not. Ari and Raquel seem so perfect because Nate and Josh feel so lost and unsure of themselves. What could be more stabilizing than a woman who knows stuff about God?
Abortion is treated in a matter-of-fact way.
Claire’s abortion in season three and Josh’s girlfriend Kaya’s abortion are not earth-shattering tragedies that rip the characters’ lives apart. For Claire, it’s not that the abortion itself is a difficult decision; it’s that it becomes a sort of referendum on her life and how lonely and unhappy she is. Rather than ask Russell or a friend or her brothers or her mom for a ride, Claire asks Brenda (and sort of randomly, too, since Brenda just happened to show up at the house). They make small talk in the car, and Brenda asks, “What else do you like?” “I don’t know,” Claire says. We know a lot less about Kaya, certainly, but the way she tells Josh about her plan is pretty straightforward, and it’s Josh who has the impractical, unfair fantasy of them getting married and living happily ever after.
Being a caretaker is exhausting.
Shelley on Transparent and Ruth on SFU both crack under the intense pressure of being a caretaker to their second husbands. It’s a ton of work, and it’s isolating and demoralizing, especially when your children don’t — can’t? won’t? — seem to help in any meaningful way.
Sibling relationships are complex, significant, and not always a source of good.
Sarah, Josh, and Ali are a unit, certainly, but we also see how they operate in various twosomes; Sarah and Ali go get makeup-counter makeovers with Maura, while Josh and Ali swap records, and Sarah and Josh buy weed. Nate, David, and Claire work the same way: Nate and Claire are more free-spirited, Nate and David run the family business together, and David and Claire are each other’s most trusted person. (The scene where David admits to Claire that he wasn’t just carjacked — he was kidnapped and tortured — really captures this bond.) SFU also shows us the twisted, darker side of sibling bonds with Brenda and Billy, and there are some echoes of that relationship on Transparent, too: Ali and Josh aren’t quite as damaged, but they do have that “no one will ever be as close to us as we are to each other” thing going pretty hard. Just ask Syd.
The shows both really love (and see some humor in) California.
Many, many shows are set in California. But not very many care so much about about its geographical and cultural features. Transparent makes L.A. look like an aura-affirming corner of heaven, and SFU’s love of Topanga Canyon comes up over and over, particularly through Aunt Sarah. There are hippie-dippie food restrictions, characters’ desires to name-drop-but-not-name-drop, and a deep affection for California architecture.
Everyone’s at least a little bit terrible.
In Transparent’s pilot, Maura despairs that she didn’t raise her children correctly. “They are so selfish. I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves,” she says. And they are selfish, I guess, though so are Maura and Shelley and Tammy and everyone and me, too. On SFU, the Fishers are pretty selfish, too, and the Chenowiths take self-absorption to the extreme. Both shows are really comfortable with that, with characters who spend a lot of time considering their own needs and assessing people as either helpers or obstacles. It’s not meant to be adorable or endearing or Just Part of Why You Love Them™, the way character “flaws” are on other shows (Parenthood, for example). We’re supposed to find the selfishness irritating and off-putting, because that’s how people are. No matter how much you love a person, living with them will cause them to be disgusting and monstrous to you — not all the time, not in every way, but a little bit sometimes. Same goes for the Pfeffermans and the Fishers; the shows feel like we’re living with them, and we get to see them how they are.