The first time I saw an ad for the Amazon original television series Transparent featuring Jeffrey Tambor in drag, I sighed. It didn’t seem promising in any way; the actor carries too much baggage from his sleazeball George Bluth Sr. role on Arrested Development to manage anything more interesting than broad satire, I thought. Luckily, my adult son made me sit down and watch it, which thoroughly changed my preconceived notions.
Among the many things that Transparent simultaneously is — funny, clever, thought-provoking, Emmy Award–winning — it’s also crazy engaging. The Pfefferman family (the name means pepper person in German) all have brilliant, twisted, and ridiculously sexual issues, which makes for great TV voyeurism. For example, as Season 1 dawned, oldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) is torn between her perfect bourgeois family and a burning desire to return to her college lesbian affair; middle child, son Josh, a music biz wiz, has a male biological clock ticking (he wants kids); and youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) wallows in wanton sexual healing. They are a lost lot, yet they are somehow able to maintain with the presiding problem of their father (Tambor), who, formerly called Morton, is now a woman named Maura and convinced she has been dressing up as a man her whole life. As the series continues, however, Maura’s plight begins to seem tame, almost a philosophical issue nestled in the hot melodrama of the family romance.
That was Season 1. Season 2 takes that fascinating hothouse and enhances it with exquisite unexpected turns and heaping portions of art. Beauty and truth were always there, but Season 2, which begins with a white lesbian wedding, draws to a kaleidoscopic conclusion by intensifying its political themes. One episode takes place in an all-women retreat run by old-school feminists who don’t want Maura but only “women-born women.” Meanwhile, a surreal subplot set in 1930s Berlin snakes into the works.
With its apt title — maybe one of the best TV puns since the 1960s sci-fi series It’s About Time — the show means different things to different viewers. My son jokingly asked if I feel that now I’ve caught up to the sexual politics of his generation. Other friends think only about the Jewish family dynamics in it. But there is something in Transparent that creates a deeper impact than sex, politics, or religion; the show is best at conveying the ache of love. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trans inamorata, lesbian romance, married life, or even sadomasochism — all there — the familiarities of sexual regret far outweigh the revolutionary topics. It’s about how love hurts, whether falling into it, encountering loss, meeting betrayals, or narcissism: The ties that bind also chafe. I’ve never been so moved by a half hour of any small-screen show, and now I sigh watching Tambor in recognition instead of offhand rejection.
There never has been a show this open in its attitude to changing norms of gender identification, sexuality, and televisual character making. (It is written by a staff of mostly women, and ex-UCSB-drama-major Noah Harpster. It’s vetted by academics and people of diverse longing sets.) Maybe Transparent won’t change the world, but television will never be quite the same.