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“Pilot”

“Realism” on television is overrated. We praise shows all the time for being “realistic” without going into what, exactly, that means, or why it’s something we want out of our entertainment (and why should it be?). What we normally mean by “realistic” isn’t that a show magically captures our own reality (that would be very, very boring), but that we either recognize something in it that we might call authentic—that it responds to an imagined idea of what the thing should be like, even if it’s an idea we didn’t know we had, or didn’t know we could have. Put another way, that the show is emotionally realistic rather than technically realistic, albeit in a manner that comes off as surprising. This isn’t a particularly novel idea, but it’s worth repeating because, wow, the pilot of Transparent is some damn emotional blunt force trauma.

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Showrunner Jill Soloway (who wrote and directed both the pilot and “The Letting Go”) has created a lived-in version of Los Angeles and filled it with a family that is all-too believable, practically leaping out of the home movies that make up the opening titles. Admittedly, the Pfeffermans are a very, very specific type of family: sardonic, slightly detached, overeducated Jews. (Not that this sounds at all like my own family.) But the show has their internal rhythms and relationships down pat, almost as if the writers have been observing their attempts at false intimacy for years. From the spiraling tangents about people the kids used to know to the casual, quippy insults (“Why don’t you clean up the barbecue sauce inside of your vagina?”), the best thing about the pilot is the confidence with which it presents the family, warts and all. The best distillation of the show’s approach to these characters is the long, uninterrupted take of the three siblings walking up to the house, lightly arguing about whether their father has cancer—it’s not True Detective, but Soloway lingers in their mental spaces, both separate and forcibly shared through family.

Pilots are foundations—they’re supposed to establish worlds and characters, and create spaces and stories we want to come back to as viewers, something Transparent does as well or better than any pilot I’ve seen in the last few years. Its tricks are well worn, but that doesn’t make them any less effective: Starting with the morning routine of each of the children, we see Ali’s earnest lack of direction, Josh’s easygoing, almost aggressive superficiality, and Sarah’s weary motherhood. Once they start to interact, their individual relationships are also strikingly distinct, especially the immediately moving tenderness between Josh and Ali, who demonstrate such chemistry that I’m already worried there’s some traumatic secret buried between the two. (Sarah is the weak link in the pilot, but she’s also given the most clichéd material.) Again, these aren’t exactly new character types, but Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and especially Gaby Hoffmann embody them so well that it doesn’t matter.

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It helps that, if you think you’ve seen these characters before, well, that’s kind of the point. Each of the children are stuck in classic, maybe characteristically unimaginative ruts: Ali, striving after an improved, put-together version of herself without any clear idea of what that would mean, Josh professionally successful but unfulfilled as he begins to see middle age on the horizon, and Sarah trapped in a seemingly loveless marriage looking for excitement. They’re selfish, and trapped in prickly, aggressive patterns with each other, exemplified by the centerpiece dinner scene: the “free-for-all” over the house (which does a fantastic job exposing what the siblings think of each other without forcing serious conflict) and moments like the ritual conversation in which Ali asks for money from her father or Sarah wiping sauce from his face. These aren’t the most original stories, but then again, Transparent seems to underline several times that the characters aren’t the most original people.

That’s fine, though, because the show has a new, furiously beating heart in Maura. It’s tough to overpraise Jeffrey Tambor’s work in the pilot—the weary softness in his voice (“Oh.”), the slight shifts in the way he carries himself as Mort and as Maura, and the way we can immediately see a continuity between the two as distinct, but related expressions of the same person. As much as Maura’s transition is the driving force of the show, she’s a complex character even without that detail: empathetic, discovering her own strength in a support group-meeting and comfortably communicative, endlessly caring for her children and deeply appalled at the way they turned out. She’s struggling to come to terms with her own identity, but in a different, more concrete way from her children.

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Lauding Tambor raises the specter of an issue at the foundation of Transparent: The casting of a cis actor as a trans character. Writing about the show practically requires consideration of the arguments against this choice, many of which are compelling. (Certainly, it will be fantastic if more trans actors get work as a result of Transparent.) But in this case it makes a lot of sense to cast Tambor. Not only is he a recognizable face for the show, he’s playing a character at the beginning of a transition narrative, a person who’s still, to some extent, unsure who she is. We get a sense from the kids and from Shelly (a terrifying Judith Light, evoking a Jewish Colleen Donaghy) of Mort as a philandering liar, dating a series of younger women. That might be a product of their myopia, but Mort still evinces some controlling mannerisms with the children, though they fall away as he more fully becomes Maura.

The writers and cast even have a perfect grasp on the characters at the fringes of the story—in particular, Sarah’s college girlfriend, the cool, cocky Tammy (Melora Hardin) and her perfectly oblivious, Rob Huebel-like husband Len (Rob Huebel). Len is fully defined with a single line delivery: “I like lesbians,” said as if he were talking about which kind of fruit to put in his yogurt. And the other members of Maura’s support group (all trans actors) immediately seem like the show could reach over into their stories, with all of half a second of screen time and minimal dialogue. All the while Soloway’s direction manages to capture that careful empathy as her camera lingers over intimate moments like Ali looking at her body in the mirror—as much as you might not want to, you should care about these people.

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This focus on introducing the characters with as much humanity as possible means what plot there is gets mostly thrown by the wayside—we’re introduced to the children, they have dinner with their father and fight over the house, and then their lives continue apace (slowly), following very low-key arcs (Ali gets a personal trainer she’s sexually attracted to, Josh continues working with the band Glitterish and sleeping with one of the bandmates, and Sarah somewhat aggressively goes after Tammy). Then, Sarah discovers Maura, dressed as herself, in the house. That’s it.

Instead of heaping on drama, the pilot uses its premise against us, waiting as long as possible to introduce Maura (to the point of not using Tambor’s voice during the phone calls with each of the children), leaving her as a specter looming over the lives of the kids. Even after the family dinner, the camera moves deliberately over Maura’s transformation into her real self, painting it as a growing-comfortable, a moment of growth. And the discovery of Maura’s gender identity, ostensibly the inciting incident for the series, is held until the last possible second of the pilot (and Sarah, the least well-defined child, is the only one to find out), leveraging our expectations to hang the fact of Maura’s identity as a shadow over everything the kids do. As Soloway establishes these characters for the first minutes of the show, we are forced to ask—how will they react to knowing the truth about their father?

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Even the pilot’s only real flaw, pieces that come close to reading as excessively clever or winking—I’m thinking especially of the use of Ali’s pushups as a countdown to Maura walking in on Sarah—are still moving and effective. The countdown in particular detracts a bit from the world Soloway has created, but its symbolic function is important. For most of the pilot, we’re settling in and getting to know the characters—establishing that realism—before the bombshell that instigates the series. It would be a big revelation for anyone, let alone people as consistently petty as the Pfeffermans, allowing the pilot to raise the series’ big question without starting to answer anything. These are painfully limited people, about to deal with an expansion of their world that none of them seem equipped to handle. “Follow them,” Transparent seems to say. “It won’t be pleasant, and it won’t be pat, but it will be real.”

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of season one of Transparent. I’ve been looking forward to this show for months, and I’m beyond excited to be tackling it with you guys. I’ll be doing two episodes a week, starting to run on Fridays after this one. I’m going to try to be as conscientious as I can in dealing with the subject matter, but please let me know if I’m getting anything wrong.
  • Additional housekeeping note: Please try to avoid spoilers in the comments if you’ve watched beyond the episodes we’re covering. Don’t just do it for your fellow commenters—I’m going to do my best to write these reviews one at a time after watching each episode, and I’d prefer not to know what’s coming.
  • “You know I don’t care for music.” Yikes. I’m sure it will be more complicated than this, but Shelly comes across as quite the villain in the pilot.
  • “I distinctly remember you calling saying you were going to have two Mexican boys—” “Salvadoran.”
  • One extended flashback of Ali on The Price Is Right, please.

“The Letting Go”

We pick up right where we left off. That means jumping right in with the series’ first attempt to explain gender dysphoria, as Maura tries to come out to Sarah. The crucial moment here, and one of the more effecting touches of the series so far, lands when Maura tells her daughter she’s at least had an inkling of her gender dysphoria since she was five years old: “My whole life I’ve been dressing up like a man.” This, plus the casual, dream-like way Maura summarizes her entire life to Divina from her support group, paints a potent picture of what her life has been like, and the way she’s just starting to emerge from living a life underwater.

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Though Maura initially attempts to send Tammy out of the room, she benefits enormously from Sarah’s resistance to getting rid of her old flame. Tammy, who had a character in the pilot but was primarily defined as Sarah’s love object, immediately takes the frontrunner position for “chillest character,” immediately complimenting Maura (“You look awesome”) and using the appropriate pronoun right after their conversation. Better still, she manages to sway Sarah, whose initial reaction is a mixture of confused and disdainful—the eldest Pfefferman child is still a bit unsettled days later—to the point where she tells Len—but she appears to be dealing with the new information to the best of her ability. Both women, of course, come out looking better than Len, who says that he always found Sarah’s father “creepy.” (Then again, he seems less transphobic and more apathetic.) The immediacy of this beginning gives “The Letting Go” a sense of urgency. But it also means that there isn’t much space to take the show in new directions.

“The Letting Go” is, if anything, even slower than the pilot, which makes sense given the ease with which Amazon subscribers can digest the entire season. By the end of the episode, Len is the only other person to know about Maura’s identity, leaving the information to continue ricocheting slowly through the family. It’s an old saw that traditionally, the second episode of a series reiterates most of the beats of the pilot for viewers who might just be tuning in and want to avoid confusion, but it’s not like Transparent is airing “The Letting Go” a week later. Instead, moments like Maura explaining her children to a friend from her support group seem somewhat unnecessary. The potential cost to her relationship with her family notwithstanding, I’m not sure we needed the cut at the end of the episode that suggests Maura watching her younger self at the family dinner table. We know what’s at stake, and what’s already gone.

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Certainly, Maura’s plot this episode serves mostly as a representation of what her life might be like after committing to her transition, underlining what she has to lose (her family) and gain (a small apartment with her own vanity table and feminine space in a community of other queer people). The man who dies in the complex is a slightly hamfisted symbol—he dies alone from society’s point of view, but still surrounded by people who understand him. Is this a tradeoff—a choice Maura is presented with in flashback in the form of a dress, a choice she rejects—one she is willing to make now?

One particularly effective part of Maura’s conversation with Divina—her description of Ali as “unable to land,” which conjures a rather potent image of the daughter as a creature in flight, trying to find a safe space to touch down (one unsafe option: mom’s clear attempt to tie her to the ground). That’s a totally reasonable way of looking at Ali, but it’s a perspective we could have gleaned from the pilot. Hoffmann’s performance is still excellent, but she isn’t given many new notes to play. She sleeps with the trainer (and is wounded when his roommate makes it clear he’s done this before), smokes weed with him, and takes his advice to quit dairy and order tofu shmear. These are nice details, but nothing new. At least Ali gets the weirdest moment of the show so far when posturing geese attack her outside Shelly’s place. The camera work here, especially, is jerkier and more active than it is any time in the pilot, putting Ali in a situation that requires immediate action rather than the long-term, almost casual bottling up the Pfeffermans are used to. This is probably the most profound that dropping a bagel has ever been portrayed.

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On the other hand, Josh’s reaction to his girlfriend’s pregnancy answers a supremely important question from the pilot: Is he just a straight-up douche? (One argument that he is: It is perfect that his first response to having knocked up his girlfriend is to get her Cold Stone.) It wouldn’t be surprising if Josh’s entire character were purely superficial, or as Maura puts it, “image-conscious.” And he is, but not really in a malicious way. After a really sweet moment with his niece (that features some very good acting from Duplass), he tries to propose to his girlfriend with a family heirloom that survived the Holocaust. (This leads to the funniest exchange of the episode: “Ew.” “Ew to what?” “…The Holocaust?”) Josh is motivated by fear, a need for affection, and having an awesome time with his niece (who is truly adorable). And his way of expressing his desire for a child—“half of you and half of me”—is a pretty on-the-nose representation of the narcissism inherent in becoming a parent. It’s a silly move, but one that’s reminiscent of Don Draper’s more wounded, impulsive moments, with less armor.

Sarah also gets a bit of additional color, though it’s mostly from her relationship with Tammy and tentative acceptance of her father. We don’t see much of why Sarah and Tammy feel so strongly about each other (besides their implied history), but their sex scene is not only a beautiful vision of the city of Los Angeles, it’s deeply intimate (a word I expect to use at least once or twice in each of these reviews), and a real display of passion in a cast of mostly detached characters. Somehow, Transparent has me invested in these crazy kids, even if it’s mainly in that I want them to realize what they’re using each other to get away from. Tammy’s life is a little more obscured (how could you be unhappy with Tig Notaro?), but in Sarah’s case, it’s obvious. Len manages to get off some of the best lines of the episode (on the blanket Sarah and Tammy did it on: “Why is this soaked? Did a Capri Sun explode in here?”), but he’s still the least pleasant character on the show, and I hope the writers give some indication of what they saw in each other. Right now, the clear, highlighted space between the couple as they walk into their date-night restaurant says it all.

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For the most part, “The Letting Go” deepens or continues to do all of the stuff the pilot does well. There’s some great Jewish geography with the family’s history running back to the Holocaust, an increased clarity on the stakes for Maura as she continues coming out, and a deeper introduction of Shelly (the centerpiece of the pilot is dinner at the house, while here it’s lunch with Shelly). Primarily, everything gets ever so slightly more complicated. We’re increasingly getting a sense of just how much everyone has their own secrets, their own things to run from. With only an hour of show, Transparent can’t give us the full picture of the web connecting all of the characters (especially the ones not in the central family), but it can sure as hell tease at the threads. The story is just starting to build momentum, so it’s a little unfair to expect so much from this second installment, but my main takeaway from “The Letting Go” is that I can’t wait for the rest of the season to see how it all comes crashing down.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • “I have been fussy because I have an interloper in my body.” Alison Sudol’s performance as Kaya, Josh’s girlfriend, isn’t anything to write home about, but she gets some great material.
  • “Can I persuade you to join me in a festive cocktail?” This whole exchange does a wonderful job of hinting at the type of woman Maura wants to be, the sort of femininity she wants to achieve over the course of her transition. Case in point: “How utterly Parisian.”
  • Len defines himself with one line, again: “I don’t do things unless I’m being asked to do them, because I don’t like getting in trouble.”
  • Transparent isn’t going to leave its comic teeth solely for the Pfeffermans—all of the people in Maura’s support group have to go to AA meetings right after.
  • Maura, explaining her life story: “I did, I don’t know, the whole Jewish thing.” Same, Maura. Same.

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