The Brilliant Challenge of Transparent

When your own happiness hurts others, what do you do?


(Spoilers ahead regarding plot points in episodes throughout season two of Transparent.)

“There’s a new world coming, and it’s just around the bend. There’s a new world coming, this one’s coming to an end.”

Those words were once sung by Mama Cass Elliot, and on YouTube, there’s a video of her performing them in front of a giant peace sign in 1970, a year when the world did seem in the midst of rebirth. The song was also covered by Nina Simone, who added a verse riffing on the Book of Revelations: a bit of apocalyptic fire from someone who sought political change at great cost to her career. Now, “New World Coming” has been covered by three young women early in Transparent’s second season, to soundtrack a scene in which one character makes a questionable romantic choice with another. It might as well have been playing throughout all the episodes, though. For the members of the show’s central family, the Pfeffermans, there’s always a new world coming.

Amazon’s Transparent is a very 2015 work—created by a streaming provider, centered on a transgender character—but it’s also a reminder of how many of today’s cultural norms, and ongoing cultural debates, have roots in the Baby Boomer heyday. Through the yellowing mid-century-modern homes it’s set in, through the conversations its characters have about Maura-when-she-was-Mort’s time at Berkeley, and through its depiction of an all-“womyn” festival packed with beat poetry and topless reveling, the show evokes a time when feminism, racial equality, and sexual openness felt like new and very radical projects. It also examines, quite provocatively, how the mentality of constant revolution and social permissiveness has filtered into a generation’s personal decision-making—in ways that are not altogether good.

The fact that Transparent is one of the banner artworks about the recent “transgender moment” in pop culture might lead people to assume that it’s a show meant to confirm a certain political point of view—that it’s a pure glorification of identity fluidity and all its implications. Certainly, critics on the right have felt that way. “It feels more like an attempt to win Best New Cultural Indoctrination Vehicle at Sundance than something intended to attract new viewers/subscribers,” National Review’s R.J. Moeller wrote of the first season. And I’ll confess that while I was charmed by the humor and drawn in by the naturalistic filmmaking style of the 10 episodes that premiered last year, I found myself wondering about the scope of the show’s aspirations. It made Maura and her family into full-fledged characters with foibles, much like any “normal” sitcom ensemble constantly making cringeworthy but relatable choices. Its mission was both noble and limited: to humanize.

But Transparent’s second season shocked me. It feels like a deep questioning of some of the central tenets of progressive society. The show is very interested in the way that following one’s own truth, rewriting old social rules, and practicing radical honesty can harm others and destabilize one’s life. It’s constantly looking for the line between self-actualization and mere selfishness. And its characters use politics as a pretext for making ungenerous choices, and thereby risk undermining the credibility of those politics in general. This allows Transparent to be more bracing, more challenging, and more compelling than most any other show on TV.

Again and again, the show plays with the fact that doing what feels good can make other people feel very bad, especially when it means violating the previously agreed-upon terms of a relationship. The season opens on Sarah’s wedding to Tammy, the woman who brought about a lesbian awakening that led Sarah to blow up her life with a husband and two kids. But before the reception’s even finished, Sarah has had an epiphany: She won’t be happy with Tammy. She calls off the marriage. This is obviously a difficult moment for Sarah, accompanied by weeping and resulting in her being a pariah at her kids’ elementary school. But it’s more difficult for Tammy, who then crashes a Pfefferman party, hysterical. “You have ruined my life,” she screams at the crowd. “You think there’s no fucking consequence. I am a fucking consequence.”

That’s just the start of a plot motif that sees characters expend great energy getting into seemingly desirable situations, only to suddenly and somewhat inexplicably want out—prior promises and collateral damage be damned. For me, the most devastating story thread is Josh’s. He loudly, strenuously insists he’s devoted to the generous and intelligent rabbi Raquel—even going so far as to send his teenage biological son back to the Midwest, so that they can build a life together. But then her pregnancy unexpectedly terminates. He tells her he wants to take some time before trying to have another baby. She takes this as a sign of his commitment wavering. She’s probably right. He doesn’t even try to get her back once she leaves.

There’s also the wrenching saga of Ali and her best friend Syd, whose crush on Ali went unrequited until one night when Ali, apparently inspired by reading lusty lesbian poetry, decided she was queer. The two women date and say they love each other, but Ali won’t give Syd even the faintest commitment. She justifies herself by saying she wants to reject heteronormativity and by using the language of self-actualization: “I love being with you and how being with you I’ve become myself and how I want to keep doing that and expanding and getting closer and closer to that. And I know that I will just start shutting down if we have to make a commitment to next year, or a month.”

“A month,” Syd spits back (Carrie Brownstein is amazing here). “Is that hard for you to think about? A month? A day? What’s going to happen in an hour? Or is that too hard? You’re so locked in. You’re so locked in by me.” Next we hear, they’ve broken up.

The pattern is even mirrored by the Pfeffermans’ mother, Shelly. Her resentment against the governing board at her condo complex is an ongoing gag for most of the season, and eventually, she wins the seat of president in a landslide. But after one meeting, where she has to listen to “to a bunch of altacockers debate what color they should paint the facacta speedbump” (the show’s a fabulous crash course in Yiddish), she resigns. Her new boyfriend, a bearded benevolent houseboat owner named Buzzy, sums up the entire Pfefferman ethos: “I told her, you need to do what you want in this life, not what you feel like you should be doing. Just quit.”

The uncomfortable truth is that that line also explains why Mort became Maura. Her transition is what set the entire series’s story in motion, and the way that her kids begin undergoing their own reinventions is meant to be understood as a reaction to it. Transparent is firmly on her side, and takes fascinating, thoughtful detours into the wider transgender experience this season. But a more pious show, one that was actually interested in “cultural indoctrination,” wouldn’t tempt the accusation that it’s comparing a transgender person’s struggles to quotidian examples of selfishness. Nor would it have Maura leave Shelly for a second time in their life because Maura feels their relationship isn’t working and doesn’t seem interested in trying to fix it, even though Shelly seems to desperately need her to stay. Nor would it let the far-left critique of transgender women get a full airing in an uncomfortable scene at the aforementioned Womyn’s festival, where Maura is made to feel unwelcome because of all the years she benefited from the world believing her to be a man.

It also might not give us a scene like the electrifying one Josh and Buzz have toward the end of the season, when Buzz suggests that Josh's life is in disarray because he never got a chance to mourn his father. “Well it’s like, politically incorrect to say you miss someone who has transitioned,” Josh replies.

“This isn’t about correct, Joshua. This is about grieving, mourning.”

The two embrace. Josh starts bawling.

* * *

It’s a brutal season, one that I binged quickly in large part because I wanted to see just how far Jill Solloway and her team would go. Again and again, the audience was made to root for a relationship to bloom, only to be crushed when it self-destructed. And again and again, there were indications that the Pfeffermans justified their flakiness righteously, under the idea that one’s own fulfillment is the highest aim in life—rather than, say, honoring commitments or helping others. The show is not quite Seinfeld in wanting its characters to be understood as caricatures of unlikability. But I often felt less sympathy toward them than toward the people they hurt. Was Transparent, all along, meant to subvert “if it feels good, do it”?

It’s certainly more nuanced than that. The season’s threaded through with flashbacks to 1933 Germany, where the Pfeffermans immigrated from. We meet Maura’s grandmother, who wants to bring her family to America out of fears about the political climate in Germany. Her trans daughter, having found a queer community in Berlin where she feels accepted, refuses to leave. The other daughter, Maura’s mom, goes with her to America, where they find out that their would-be patriarch has started a new life with a new woman. They strike out on their own.

In the present, Ali goes down the rabbit hole of Jewish history, and talks about the idea that trauma is passed down through generations. There’s also a subplot in which Maura has her childhood photos retouched to show what she would look like if she’d been raised as a girl and not a boy.  “Just imagine if you could have been her, your whole life,” Sarah says, flipping though the album. There are also clear indications that the three Pfefferman kids weren’t parented very attentively. These are all reminders that the Pfeffermans’ issues are specific, acute, not very generalizable—inflicted both by social oppression and personal betrayals of the kind they now commit on others.

The end of the season doesn’t quite deliver redemption for anyone, but it does suggest that some falling-outs or failures that seemed apocalyptic in the moment really weren’t. Each of the characters gets a small moment of hope, a new beginning, in the season finale, and there are great scenes showing the resilience of family bonds. Sarah mentions that she might start getting into religion, which is a callback to some haunting sequences earlier in the season where the Pfeffermans’ impetuousness was contrasted with devout Jews, Christians, and mystics who swear fealty to something bigger and more eternal.

I like what Jamieson Cox wrote at The Verge about the selfishness of the show’s various characters as being presented not to be judged, but rather as a fact of life that must be embraced for many people:

It’s depicting transition as such a fundamental, bone-shaking act of self-determination that there’s no use pretending or compromising in its wake. It explains Maura’s lingering haughtiness and the way she treats Shelly; it explains Davina’s reaction when Maura tries to butt into her life and question her decisions. And it explains the behavior of all the other Pfeffermans, too: They follow Maura’s lead.

This seems right. But sometimes, the consequences of the Pfeffermans following Maura’s lead seem so grievous as to be unforgivable. Transparent, thus far, is not interested in offering comforting dogma about a utopian, fluid future; it does not say everything will be okay once people start following their own truths. It has succeeded in forcing viewers to think about what a new world might really look like, and whether it would be better than the one left behind.