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‘Transparent’ reminds that TV can be as glorious, brittle and uncompromising as any art form

Jill Soloway’s web TV series Transparent takes pride of place in local streaming service Stan’s international line-up. Back in 2014, when the series premiered and streaming services were still in their infancy in Australia, I wrote a piece: How the TV show of the year came from the internet (and mightn’t make it to Australia).

Soon after that piece, Stan announced it would be bringing the series to its Australian customers as soon as it launched. And then not long after that, Transparent’s first season picked up the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series, becoming the first ever show produced for a streaming service to win a best series Golden Globe (although its classification as a comedy still seems like a stretch).

The third season of the show premiered this weekend on Stan, and it finds the Pfefferman family continuing to deal with changes in all their lives. It takes a slightly darker twist as the family members are forced to confront their own mortality and seek out solutions to their dissatisfaction.

If you’ve never seen the show, it has a fairly simple (if novel) set-up. The father of a Jewish-American family comes out as a transgender woman named Maura (Jeffrey Tambor). Maura’s three children have their own problems and identity crises, while her ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) tries to get on with her life on the edges of this formerly tight family unit.

The show has received plenty of praise for the way it tackles issues affecting queer and trans people and their families, and was inspired by Soloway’s own father’s own coming out as a trans woman. The series also hired plenty of transgender people both behind and in front of the camera, with Tambor’s Maura the only trans character played by a cisgender actor.

While the third season had a narrative thread tying the contemporary Pfeffermans to one of their outcast queer, Jewish ancestors, who lived in Berlin through the Weimar Republic and into the Holocaust, the third season is totally forward-looking.

In the opening episode, Maura finds herself desperately seeking to save a young transgender person, fighting against the limitations of her own body. Maura hopes to continue her own physical transformation, but encounters roadblock after roadblock, revealing all kinds of hardships and practical considerations which trans people come up against in 2016.

The only time the show looks back for any significant period is one episode which looks back to Maura’s youth, as a 12-year-old Mort. It makes for heart-wrenching viewing.

Transparent has a pretty straight forward narrative, told with great clarity, but the plotting of these characters’ lives feels infinitely more interesting and subtler than any TV series I’ve ever seen.

There are no easy answers for any of the questions these characters have, as they grapple with religion, sexuality, life and death. While it uses the episodic structure of television smartly to open and close chapters for each of the characters, it shies away from any kind of traditional TV drama or comedy structure.

There are no neat resolutions in which any plot point or conflict can be tied up and put behind. Likewise, there are no cliffhangers — the action simply doesn’t evolve like that in this nuanced, textured and entirely human world.

That means it’s not always the easiest TV show to watch; it doesn’t give a fuck about your expectations. It’s more concerned with unfurling the lives of the fragile and often difficult people at its centre than conforming to the rigid structures of TV drama.

What ends up making Transparent so compelling for audiences is not only how gorgeously produced it is, but the complexity of the relationships, and the empathy and love which the creatives have for these characters.

That love is only matched by the love these actors have for their characters.

While it’s Jeffrey Tambor who gets most of the attention — and has won two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for his performance as Maura — the entire cast is excellent. If there’s a better acted show on TV this year, I haven’t seen it.

One of the third series’ great glories is Judith Light’s performance as the often neglected mother Shelly. Light has felt a little under-utilised in the first two series, but in the third she takes things into her own hands and demands what her family owes her. She gets the final word in the series in a scene which, against all odds, is extraordinarily uplifting and life-affirming.

This is drama as sophisticated and powerful as anything you’ll find on TV, on film, in a novel, or on stage.

3 responses to “‘Transparent’ reminds that TV can be as glorious, brittle and uncompromising as any art form

  1. Has Maura’s family become less repellent than they were in S1? I couldn’t bear to watch S2 because they just made me so mad.

  2. And why then is something as good as this not bought by the ABC for free-to-air – instead of endless repeats of Midsomer or the crappiest of British “comedy” based on racist sexist stereotypes!

  3. Makes you wonder why we in Australia don’t even try to create something as big and bold and transgressive (pun intended) as this show. Instead we end up with lame Crownies spin-offs (don’t forget we’ve also got Newton’s Law to look forward to). And lame medical and cop shows. And endless depressing “relationship dramas.”

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