Transparent Changed Television As an Art Form

In the season two episode “Man on the Land,” the past and present timelines blend together. Photo: Amazon Studios

When Transparent first premiered in 2014, far and away its most notable features were that it was a family comedy about a trans woman, and that the trans woman was portrayed by well-known cis-male actor Jeffrey Tambor. Those two elements catapulted Transparent into the level of a buzzy TV pioneer, a touchstone and a trailblazer in the cultural landscape. But they’re also the show’s least successful and least complete legacies. Tambor’s performance as Maura Pfefferman slowly became a millstone around the show’s neck, the element that made it feel dated and out of step. After the later furor over Tambor’s alleged misconduct on set, Transparent began to look less like a blazed trail, and more like a road that existed so future travelers would know where not to walk.

But to look only at Tambor would be to miss the show’s real legacy, which has almost nothing to do with its lead trans character, and everything to do with the way Transparent tried (and sometimes failed) to tell her story. Throughout its four-season run, the Jill Soloway series defined an entire genre of TV comedy and opened new avenues for TV storytelling, marking an evolution in our understanding of television as art.

Transparent initially debuted as one of Amazon Prime’s short-lived pseudo-experiments, allowing viewers to vote for what pilots they wanted to see move forward as full series. (I say “pseudo-experiment” because there was never any evidence that the audience votes mattered at all.) In some ways, it was a distillation of much of what had come before. Like Louie or Girls, it was formally experimental; it wasn’t purely a comedy. But its narrative playfulness often took bigger swings and occurred more on the level of an entire season than the episode, which was fitting for its new place on an all-in-one-go streaming platform rather than a weekly TV calendar. Like Weeds or United States of Tara, it was also an outgrowth of the family sitcom. But the way it found sadness and mutually destructive dysfunction in a family dynamic was more in line with ideas that had traditionally been the province of the prestige drama. In Soloway’s hands, those ideas became queer; family angst became both intense and absurd; and unlike Louie, where prestige comedy was filtered through an extreme focus on the individual, the Transparent model is about group dynamics. It created a precedent for prestige comedy that was multivocal, full of many moods and perspectives.

The seeds of this are apparent in the pilot episode, when Pfefferman has her children over for dinner to tell them that she’s trans. It doesn’t work. The Pfefferman children talk over her; they fill the dining room with their own anxieties and subjective concerns; and when they finally push Maura into telling them what she’s invited them over to hear, she can’t make herself do it. It’s a schematic that Transparent hewed to throughout its run: The family overwhelms everything else. Maura’s transition was a rock being plunked into the family lake, but Transparent has always been less about the rock, and more about the ripples.

That dispersed focus on the family rather than on its trans lead meant the show never spoke to trans issues as thoughtfully as it could’ve. The idea of transition became less about one person’s gender, and more of a thematic and formal obsession. Over the whole series, the Pfeffermans’ codependency and their inherited family trauma are catalysts for stories about all kinds of boundaries: gender lines, parental boundaries, geopolitical borders. The show itself began to replicate the act of crossing over, especially as it became more defined by flashbacks — searing visits to the past that often uncovered buried sources of shame and longing and then reverberated back on the present story line. In its most compelling and experimental turns, Transparent’s flashbacks became unruly, pulling on season-long threads and refusing to stay in neat narrative boxes. Near the end of the second season, as Ali Pfefferman wanders over to a campfire at a 21st-century feminist festival, the nearby faces become people from the past. The past timeline and the present timeline slide together effortlessly, and Ali is surrounded by a story that had long been papered over in the Pfefferman family lore. The moment is not just gorgeous. It’s a confident, avant-garde, rule-breaking way to tell a story.

Most fundamentally, its dreamy, elliptical storytelling ushered in a new sense of what a TV comedy could mean. Transparent is one of the earliest of what Vulture’s Jesse David Fox identified as post-comedy comedies, a show that dances around the borders of funny. It is occasionally so broad that it’s nearly silly, and frequently so full of grief that it’s hard to take a breath. Transparent is a comedy in the way that a bruise is a comedy: The thing that causes the bruise may well be hilarious, in an absurd, “I can’t believe this is happening” way. But the resulting bruise still hurts. And the bruise itself perpetually captures both truths: the hurt and the absurdity of the story that caused it. It’s a fitting sense of humor for a show about inherited trauma and the absurd social rigidity of gender. The pain and the irony of its themes are all mixed up together, and the resulting comedy is a balancing act where laughing and weeping often look like the same thing.

The list of Transparent’s comedic progenitors is fairly short, but after Transparent, the full wave of daring, strange, inventive, dark prestige comedies really hit: Baskets, Better Things, Bojack Horseman, Barry, One Mississippi, Search Party, Ramy, Russian Doll, Fleabag, Atlanta. They share many of Transparent’s post-comedy-era preoccupations (most of them are about identity and trauma in one way or another), but they also share Transparent’s model of harnessing dark humor together with genre-blending storytelling modes. Better Things, a show that owes much to the style and direct influence of Louie C.K., actually looks much more like Transparent in its sustained focus on a single family and its oblique visual style. Russian Doll’s primary foundation is a looping structure that comes straight from Groundhog’s Day, but the way memory collapses into the present at the end is uncannily like Transparent’s unruly flashbacks. Transparent’s influence is in a group of comedies full of dream sequences, surrealist diversions, explorations of the self that filter down into the bedrock of how the stories are told. They are odd, niche, personal stories, often queer and female, the kinds of stories that, like Transparent, survive on small audiences and fervent critical praise, clinging to existence against prevailing capitalist winds.

Though not its original intention, Transparent will end the way it began: by breaking form once again, this time as a movie-length musical, a grand, flashy, crushingly tragic send-off, necessitated by the firing of Tambor. It’s a hilarious, unusual way for the show to end. But it’s also a surprisingly fitting one for the impact it has had on television.Transparent’s answer to the loss of its protagonist is to once again take something familiar, and turn it into something beautifully different.

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Transparent Changed TV As an Art Form