After watching three seasons of Transparent, I find myself envying the Pfeffermans. The transgressions of the self absorbed, upper middle class Californian-Jewish Pfefferman clan makes my own dysfunctional family seem so excruciatingly banal that I’m wishing I could wallow in all that Jewish intergenerational trauma. Which is perverse of course, and that to me is the attraction of Transparent. The Amazon Studios series is so wonderfully complex and constantly surprising that I can’t help but delight in my perverse reactions to it.
Take the first episode of Season 3 when Maura, the newly transitioned matriarch of the Pfefferman family, screws up her response to a distressed cry for help from a suicidal young caller to the LGBTIQ helpline. Maura tries to rectify her mistake not out of compassion, but out of a self directed desire to ‘learn about that whole world’ as she states earlier in the episode, ‘that world’ being her recently adopted trans community. Setting out on an ill considered rescue mission, she gets lost in south LA, far out of her socioeconomic comfort zone where she offends everyone she meets, eventually ending up begging for help from the suicidal caller she set out to help in the first place.
Yet rather than feeling dismayed with her transgressions, I find myself warming to her. Perhaps because Maura, with her droopy painted lips is so drenched in pathos that her ability to easily offend others serves merely to expose her vulnerability, making her insensitivity self deprecating rather than obnoxious. Maura is somewhat clueless, but her efforts to transcend herself through her desire to be her ‘authentic self’ illuminates human suffering in a way that seems tragically heroic and poignant.
What makes Maura and her equally self absorbed family members’ existential angst compelling is the particularity of the Jewish context. The evocative flashbacks to 1930s Weimar Berlin and Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research in Season 2 or the luminous Mikvah scene and the references to the rituals of the Passover Seder running through Season 3 point to a specifically Jewish cultural framework that acts as the narrative bedrock of Transparent.
But Jewish trauma and suffering are not to be seen as reasons behind the Pfefferman’s many and constantly evolving neuroses. Jewishness, the series’ creator Jill Soloway seems to be saying, is a stand-in for otherness. And let’s face it, the undeniable reality of the Holocaust implicates all humanity in the historical othering of the Jewish peoples, which means that Soloway might’ve chosen the perfect particular family to explore the universality of this theme. And just as we are all guilty of excluding ‘the other’, we’ve all experienced the brutality of being excluded, shunned because of our otherness. I suspect that’s why I recognise the pain of the Pfeffermans (albeit a privileged white suburban angst).
So the middle sibling Josh’s tragicomic embrace of Christianity to appease his estranged evangelical preacher son, or the bisexual/S&M carryings-on of eldest daughter Sarah may seem farcical at first glance. But in the scripted world of Transparent, these are the entertaining stories of people perpetually questioning their identities, trying to locate a space where they are safe and are not ‘othered’, a space just to be themselves in this confusing world of competing ‘authentic selves’.
And therein lies the conundrum at the heart of Transparent: just what is the ‘authentic self’? I love the scene where youngest sibling Ali is accused by her fellow women academics of ‘white fragility’. What’s white fragility asks Ali innocently, to which a black woman replies, ‘it’s when people think their white tears matter more than black blood’. Is black ‘more authentic’ than white? What about yellow? What about trans? Is intersex on par with gay? The fact that Maura continually finds herself ostracised from various subsections of the LGBTIQ community which she claims is her ‘chosen family’ may point to this tension between ‘authenticity’ and otherness. Just what chance do the rest of us have to find a safe place to express our ‘authentic selves’ if the ‘chosen people’ can’t?
And that brings us back to Jewishness, still central to the non-Orthodox Pfeffermans, who occasionally seek affirmation in Jewish rituals, and mostly fail. Their attempt to share the Seder meal in the last episode of Season 3 for example, ends in disappointment. Season 3 explores spirituality and its relationship to identity more fully than the previous series. That’s why the gorgeous Rabbi Raquel, perhaps the only immediately likable person in Transparent, has such a tough time of it. (She appears with dishevelled hair in the opening scenes, and never seems to get a chance to put a brush to it.)
Throughout Season 3, Raquel is ravaged by inner turmoil that is essentially left over from her failed relationship with Josh Pfefferman in earlier seasons. Yet in one heartbreaking scene, she attempts to comfort Josh in his hour of need, embracing him in a hug, at which point Josh proclaims, ‘I could just live right here, in this hug, sell everything and just move in’. That’s when Rabbi Raquel gently unravels from the embrace.
Is this the Jewish embrace, the embrace that signals shared identity, shared history and shared pain? Is this warm embrace of inclusion necessarily associated with the searing pain of otherness?
Identities are so complex that no one identity can hold all of us. So when you set out to emerge as your true gender as Maura has done, it’s inevitable that you end up embracing isolation too. Maura’s question posed at the very beginning of Season 3 is so poignant. She laments that despite having family, friends and a lover who support her coming out as trans, ‘why do I feel so unhappy?’ I just love this carefully calibrated melancholy in Transparent…it’s nicely nuanced to counterbalance the humour.
But perhaps what I love the most about Season 3 is the final scene when Shelly, mother Pfeffernan performs a spectacular one woman show retelling her own traumatic life narrative. It’s triumphant, feminist, transcendent and an awesome performance, not least because a thin, often irritating and irritable older Jewish woman in a sparkly dress sings the shit out of Alanis Morissette’s One Hand in my Pocket to reclaim and rewrite her own story. I think I might’ve spontaneously high-fived her.
Transparent is an American series created by Jill Soloway for Amazon Studios; there were five seasons in all, ending in 2019. In 2017, Jeffrey Tambor who played Maura was accused of sexual harrassment on set and left the series.