We’re smack dab in the middle of the first season of Amazon’s Transparent and everyone is struggling to adjust to the new normal.
Let’s bitch it out…
The Pfefferman children are on their worst behaviour in ‘Wedge’ which makes this one of the most difficult to watch episodes of Transparent. Josh (Jay Duplass), Ali (Gaby Hoffman) and Sarah (Amy Landecker) have proven to be normal human beings – which is to say that they sometimes act like terrible, nasty people to themselves and each other. ‘Wedge’ finds them at their most self-interested as they succumb to their basic needs and wants.
That much is clear in the opening scene as both Josh and Sarah indulge in some carnal activities. Josh picks up Kristin (Deborah S. Craig) with the kind of trite banter that makes my ears bleed while Sarah, as predicted, is back to hooking up with Tammy (Melora Hardin). Ali, on the other, becomes obsessed when she learns that Ed (Lawrence Pressman) has gone missing and no one seems to care. Her concern with her absent father-in-law would suggest she cares about someone other than herself, but when her siblings abandon the search in favour of Bloody Marys, she’s quick to join them. Over lunch she cracks and, in an egregious violation of trust, confesses Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) secret to Josh. It’s clear from the way Ali has been acting that she’s still struggling with Maura’s revelation, but it’s disappointing that both she and Sarah readily confess a secret that’s not theirs to tell.
The bad behaviour continues back at Shelly’s (Judith Light) home where they return empty handed and promptly embarrass themselves in front of Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), the female rabbi. It’s only really when we see how they behave in contrast to Raquel that it becomes clear they’re falling somewhere on the bad to crazy spectrum. If anything they’re really reinforcing Maura’s statements about their selfishness from back in 1×02.
- So Maura and Davina (Alexandra Billings) are totally going to enter the Trans Got Talent competition, right?
- While there’s awkwardness in Maura’s “outing” at lunch to former vacation partner Gary (John Kapelos), her devil may care reaction suggests that she’s already less sensitive to potential humiliation than she was last episode in the ladies restroom.
- There’s a clear suggestion that something is wrong with Shelly. When she references going to the doctor, we see Ali glance at her shoes, which are encased in flip flops (or is it medical booties?). It’s clear that there’s more to this story than we’ve seen.
- Shelly readily admits that she’s known about Maura forever, but she mistakenly refers to it as a “kink” – which tells us that she doesn’t truly understand it.
- Finally, as I’ve mentioned before I don’t care for Light’s take on Shelly. I realize that she’s portraying a particular type of character, but this unlikable caricature is not enjoyable to watch.
- Maura (after taking an estrogen pill): “My breasts are getting bigger”
- Sarah (critiquing Kristin): “You actually found the biggest-titted real estate agent in all of Los Angeles.”
- Josh (reading half of Ali’s texts): “Wait, Ed’s gone? Well I guess he lived a long life.”
- Shelly (when Sarah confesses they took Maura to the mall): “Ew, no one goes to the Beverly Centre”
1×06: ‘The Wildnerness’
One of the joys of writing these posts as I watch is how my interpretation changes from one post to another. Watching ‘The Wilderness’ I realized that Sarah and Tammy aren’t just hooking up, they’re actually playing house – literally. They’ve moved into Maura’s old home and, contrary to Josh (and Sotheby’s Kristin’s) recommendations, they’ve begun adding their own contemporary touches…like a massive television.
There’s still tradition, though. It’s actually something ‘The Wilderness’ is chock full of. In addition to a traditional Jewish dinner, Josh visits the synagogue to bond with Raquel and get back in touch with his heritage. Hell, even the “tradition” of the Pfefferman kids hanging out in the abandoned playground and Ali’s “fad of the week” approach to life make their return.
Ali’s decision to pursue an education in Women and Gender Studies may prove to be a better fit than her other life choices (though her mockery with Carrie Brownstein’s Syd suggests she’s not taking the decision completely seriously). Whereas Sarah treats Maura more like a sister, complete with compliments on toenail polish colour, Josh and Ali are still struggling to make adjust to the recent changes in the family dynamic. Josh seeks counsel from Raquel (and likely another conquest judging from past behaviour). He even goes so far as to attempt an aborted discussion with another trans person (unfortunately a prostitute probably wasn’t the best candidate to have a legitimate conversation with). Ali, on the other hand, is digging into “theory” and, like Josh, seeking answers from a “Paul Bunyan” trans man named Dale (Ian Harvie). It suggests that both children are trying to work through their issues in their own, potentially misguided, ways. The fact that Josh’s interactions with Raquel are infused with flirtation and Ali’s interest in Dale seem driven by curiousity could foretell some rocky roads ahead.
- I’m intrigued by the notion that Ali is a queer figure. At various points in ‘The Wilderness’, both Maura and Dale inquire if she is. She confesses (a little defensively) that she wishes – and “practically is” – a lesbian, she still adamantly refutes the notion. It seems to me that she has more than a cursory interest in the subject, however.
- We’re three for three with regard to challenges/humiliations for Maura on an episodic basis. This week is Len’s (Rob Huebel) freak-out at dinner when he questions the lesbian/trans influence on the kids. For the second episode in a row Maura handles the explosion with aplomb, apologizing for not easing Len into things while simultaneously/graciously telling him to calm the eff down. She’s gotten much better since the ladies incident.
- Sarah and Tammy may insist that they didn’t do anything wrong when they talk to the kids about Maura’s transition, but I’d challenge that assertion. That was one confusing conversation.
- In 1994 flashbacks, Maura and Marcy (Bradley Whitford) continue to work on their “passing abilities” around the hotel and fantasize about T-dances that don’t conflict with their husbandly duties. I’ve noticed that all of the flashbacks with Marcy seem to occur around the same time, which makes me wonder how long their relationship lasts. Where is Marcy now and why isn’t she still in Maura’s life?
- Ali (to Syd, making fun of her Feminism teacher): “Actually once I was gang raped by an exclamation mark, question mark and semicolon”
- Raquel (clarifying how she lost the last good years of her life): “So now I’ve got crunchy, crispy old lady eggs.”
1×07: ‘The Symbolic Examplar’
If I was a bit lukewarm about the last few episodes, ‘The Symbolic Examplar’ more than makes up for it. This episode pays off a number of long-lingering storylines without doing anything to make the Pfefferman children likable, which is commendable considering how terrible they’re all acting!
Things come to a head with the arrival of Maura’s Trans Got Talent show, which has all of the earmarks of a disaster early on. Sarah, whom I thought was handling things the best of the three kids, secures a prescription for medical marijuana and spends the rest of the episode in a drunken, high stupor. Josh’s inability to cope with recent events prompts him to abandon his pursuit of a normal adult relationship with Raquel and revert back to type. It’s disappointing to see him abandon the rabbi (who cooked him dinner and everything!) for an opportunity to get high and go swimming with Summer Girl Bianca (Kiersey Clemons). And Ali continues her experimental flirtation, here taking fantasy to a whole new level as she plays high femme dress-up for Dale.
The Ali storyline left my jaw on the floor thanks to the final scene at Dale’s home. Transparent is a series that is visually steeped in the mundane details of reality – aside from Ali’s drugged out cab ride in 1×03 ‘Rollin’ the direction and editing has been relatively unassuming. That makes the discovery that the first visit to Dale’s house was Ali’s fantasy projection truly shocking. In hindsight there’s a hazy dream-like filter when she enters his retro log-cabin home that belies the fact that it isn’t real, but I went along with it because I assumed that Dale might use his decor to create a hypermasculine environment. In reality he’s got a completely modern (almost bland) aesthetic. As Ali stands confused in his living room, it’s clear that Dale’s accusation that she’s a “chaser” because he’s trans is completely accurate. She’s not interested in Dale so much as the fantasy that Josh describes while they’re getting high: a “man with a vag”.
‘The Symbolic Examplar’ does great work in this fantasy vs reality realm because it helps us to realize that all of these characters, even Maura, are using fantasy as a coping mechanism. Sarah’s use of drugs smooths over the friction in her relationship with Tammy, Josh uses sex to avoid the complications of a real relationship, Ali flits from one project to another looking for immediate satisfaction and Maura pretends that her relationship with her children won’t be affected by the changes in her lifestyle. Davina is completely on point when she tells Maura that she warned her about her family abandoning her. Unfortunately, as evidenced by her return to Shelly for comfort, Maura simply isn’t ready to accept that.
- The battle of wills over the old Pfefferman house continues to pay off thematically. The divide between Sarah and Tammy is evident in Sarah’s inability to let go of nostalgic elements like Josh’s Michael Jackson glove and treasure box (two items Tammy would have thrown out without a care). Along with Josh’s tirade against the modern alterations, it’s clear that the eldest siblings are having difficulty letting go of the past. I kind of wish that Ali would weigh in on this discussion. How does she feel about all this?
- How much did I want to smack the three of them during Maura and Davina’s performance of Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’? While I felt the song was a little on the nose lyrically, it’s a good showcase to contrast the masculinity of Jeffrey Tambor’s low singing voice and Maura’s high femme look. The kids’ inability to reconcile the two is what prompts their uncomfortable laughter and subsequent escape from the talent show.
- The flashbacks to 1994 suggest a tension-filled marriage between Maura and Shelly. When a young Ali voices her displeasure about her bar mitzvah, Shelly cruelly demands Maura “be a man” and fix the problem.It’s easy to see how Maura would internalize these kinds of comments and remain in the closet for as long as she did.
- Finally, I want to say something about Maura takes off the wig, but keeps it in the backseat when she goes to visit Shelly but I struggled how to verbally convey my thoughts. Something along the lines of: she may “take off” Maura, but continues to carry her around. Feel free to help me out in the comments.
- Ali (after Dale protests her pubic hair): “Big girls have bush, daddy” So was the weird infantilization a part of the fantasy or did all of the demeaning talk/bush shaving actually occur?
- Josh (after Ali reveals Dale is trans): “I just realized that four out of five Pfeffermans prefer pussy.” Josh’s capacity to reduce everything to sex is almost commendable…almost.
Your turn: how are you feeling about these mid-season episodes of Transparent? Are you struggling with the complicated, unlikability of the Pfefferman children? Are any of them not using fantasy as a coping mechanism? Is Davina’s insight to Maura about letting go of family accurate? And does anyone have any insight about the importance of 1994 (the year of all of the flashbacks)? Sound off below.
Transparent is available in its entirety on Amazon. Come back next week for a wrap up of the remaining S1 episodes.