The Subtle Brilliance of Jill Soloway’s ‘Transparent’

Transparent, Amazon’s foray into the Netflix-infested waters of quality internet binge watching, is deservedly the most critically-lauded show of this Fall television season (and was just renewed for a second season). Created by writer/director Jill Soloway (writer/producer Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara, writer/director Afternoon Delight, which won a directing award at Sundance in 2013), the show centers around the Pfefferman family, an affluent Jewish LA clan whose patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender and begins to live as Maura in her late 60s.

Directed mostly by Soloway herself, (with the exception of three, credited to Nisha Ganatra), the direction in the show is strong and incredibly consistent, marked by what Emily Nussbaum refers to in her piece on the show in The New Yorker as “mildly funky pacing” of the current era of indie film/TV direction stylistic crossovers we are seeing particularly in comedy, with shows like Girls and Louie. However, a key difference between Transparent and those other shows is that Soloway is not a character, neither in physical or representational form. Rather, Soloway knows all of her characters extremely well, she knows them like family, and in the way one knows family, she allows them to speak for themselves and expose their own flaws. She is not at all precious about her characters and at times early in the series she can be downright misanthropic, allowing the whole ensemble (minus the consistently heartbreaking, inspiring, astonishing Maura) to tread deeper and deeper toward the brink of unlikability.

In the reviews and recaps I’ve read on the show, the word “lingering” stood out to me in multiple instances as a way to describe Soloway’s democratically observational directorial style. “All the while Soloway’s direction manages to capture that careful empathy as her camera lingers over intimate moments…”, writes Eric Thurm in his review for The A/V Club. It is an accurate way to represent Soloway’s choices. The camera is often too far from or too close to its characters. It has a loose, ethereal quality to it that makes the viewer feel like it we are capturing small moments rather than staged hallmark events. The closeness allows the viewer into the mental space of the viewer and the distance allows the viewer to see the world of the characters rather than the world of the filmmaker.

The lingering quality of the camera pays off in both comedic and profound moments in the show. In episode 3, Josh (Jay Duplass) has an outburst at his job as a music producer in which he attempts to throw a chair through the glass window of a prototypically LA conference room. The chair bounces off of the window, doing much greater damage to the chair, and after a beat of stillness Josh storms out as his boss declares “You just got fired, bro!” By remaining in the moment as it plays out, Soloway exploits both the heightened comedic beat of the chair’s failure and the more subtle beat of Josh’s realization to the ridiculous way he loses his job. Later in the same episode, Josh goes to Maura’s house where she intends to come out to him. Instead, the camera follows Josh into the house and experiences the moment of Maura revealing herself from behind an obstructed frame dressed in men’s clothing, unable to come out to her son. We know more than Josh knows in this moment, we know exactly why this reveal is heartbreaking, but Soloway’s choice to allow us to experience it with Josh is a strong way to orient the viewer to Maura’s emotions. As Nussbaum notes, the show is “more interest[ed] in behavior than in resolution.”

In exploring Maura, the emotional and familial center of the show, Soloway and Tambor define her with a slowness and a deliberateness. Maura is forming an entirely new identity at a late stage in life. She is relearning to walk, talk, sit, stand, and the deliberateness with which Tambor and Soloway find these choices are some of the most fascinating moments in the show. The camera almost feels like it’s underwater when catching Maura, the entire pace of the show changes, particularly given the chaos surrounding the lives of the other characters. It’s interesting to note that the moments most stylistically similar to the scene in Maura’s home is a drug sequence in which Maura’s youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), is high on a Molly-esq drug. In general, Soloway is parallelling their experience in that both characters are experiencing the sensations of their world and body anew.

In taking an observational approach to her filmmaking, Soloway allows us to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of the Pfefferman family in an in-depth level of specificity. It’s in these idiosyncrasies that the show’s humor is found. Namely, the Pfeffermans are a specific type of urban upper middle-class Jewish family very familiar to this writer. Jewish families tend to be represented either in the direction of the extreme Woody Allen New York stereotype or as a series of indicators like in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm rather than a defining character trait or series theme. However, for those who recognize the type of Jew that proudly states they are “from shtetl people”, trumpet the importance of a good bagel spread after a funeral, respects the Rabbi without actually being particularly pious, and slips in the occasional Yiddish phrase like the one the ends it’s first season, Transparent holds a special comedic appeal that is earned through the feeling of familiarity. A familiarity that is earned through exploring the mental states of the individuals of a family when they are alone, but pulling back to observe them objectively when together. Transparent succeeds by avoiding favoring one particular perspective in its ensemble as the audience or directorial surrogate, instead allowing the viewer to mirror the performative closeness but unspoken distance of an adult family with the unfortunate privilege of hindsight to the formative building blocks of growing up.

The Subtle Brilliance of Jill Soloway’s ‘Transparent’