“Transparent” TV Pilot Features Trans Mom, Queer Women, Additional Delightful Things

*This posts contains super minimal, like really tiny, baby quarter-spoilers.*

Last week Amazon released a second wave of streaming TV pilots to compete for a spot as the next Amazon original series. Amidst the offerings was Transparent, a family comedy Amazon describes as “An LA family with serious boundary issues have their past and future unravel when a dramatic admission causes everyone’s secrets to spill out.” I think you’re going to like the secret: it’s LBT women. The show opens by introducing you to three adult siblings: Josh (Jay Duplass), a sad-eyed hippie manchild; Ali (Gaby Hoffman), a wry, failure-to-launch depressive; and Sarah (Amy Landecker), a pampered, type A housewife, clearly bored by the monotony of her marriage. The human they know as their father “Mort” — now Maura — invites them over for dinner at their childhood home in order to come out to them as transgender. Unfortunately, the children are so busy selfishly bickering over who should get the house if their parent dies of cancer that Maura’s news never makes it out.

Caption

Josh picks his teeth. Ali tries to find meaning in a Jim Croce album. Sarah and her husband primp.

If you think Maura’s children sound self-absorbed and not very likeable, you’re exactly right! The characters in Transparent aren’t aspirational archetypes — they’re quirky, naval gazing weirdos — but they’re well written! After just thirty minutes you already know intrinsically who these people are and what they’re about: in real life, they’d be the annoying acquaintances just beyond your inner circle whose antics you love to hate. Like Lena Dunham meets Wes Anderson — simultaneously off-putting and enthralling. Plus, ten minutes in, we learn that another lead character, Sarah, had a serious relationship in college with a lesbian who resurfaces in the pilot wearing very cute glasses. Against the backdrop of her family, Maura is the most down-to-earth and sympathetic character. Given the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of trans people on TV, any positive representation is a welcome addition. However, the casting choice for Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, best known for his comedic role in Arrested Development) did send up a red flag.

Maura

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura.

This pilot comes at an interesting time. Last year’s highest profile trans-inclusive film, Dallas Buyer’s Club, has been winning mainstream awards left and right while simultaneously drawing sharp criticism from queer community members. For one thing, many feel that the casting of a cis man in a trans woman role reinforces dangerous stereotypes of trans people being drag queens. For another, Jared Leto continually fails to be an advocate for trans women and is actually using the platform to be a total ass. I can’t imagine we’d be hearing such tone-deaf remarks from someone with lived experience as a trans person. That a cis man was again cast in a trans woman’s role gives me serious pause, especially when that actor is best known to me as George Bluth, walking punchline. That being said, the decision seems to have been made thoughtfully, with trans actors in supporting roles on screen and numerous trans people involved in production.

Maura in a trans discussion group. The other actors were trans.

Maura’s trans support group. Aside from Tambor, all the actors in the scene were trans.

Director Rhys Ernst, a trans man, explained:

As a trans director, I ask myself, how would I cast a non-medically transitioning trans person, or someone pre-transition? I look at all options, and that may include some cisgender actors. I also see filmmaking as a holistic practice and don’t see casting as the only area to focus on regarding the politics of trans representation. Filmmaking is a team effort and when it comes to trans related subject matter, trans sensitivity needs to be integrated throughout the entire production chain.

He went on,

As a filmmaker I have gone to great lengths to cast transgender actors. It sometimes takes more work to locate trans actors but because of my commitment to trans representation, I feel it’s a step well worth taking…there are certain instances in which casting a cisgender actor in a trans role can be appropriate. I don’t think it’s nearly as often as Hollywood’s track record might suggest, and 9 out of 10 trans characters in Hollywood productions are typically a disappointment, both in their writing and in their casting.

Whatever the verdict on the casting, writer Jill Soloway‘s work shines here. Soloway has written and produced for Six Feet Under, United States of Tara and Grey’s Anatomy in the past, as well as a few episodes of Dirty Sexy Money, the first primetime show to feature a trans character played by a trans actor (Candis Cayne). Soloway described Transparent as her “dream project” post-Six Feet Under, “this idea about a family who inherited a secret about sexuality as opposed to a funeral home.” So far, it seems that Maura is also a lady-loving lady, and aforementioned daughter Sarah might be lined up for her own coming out narrative. (Or something. It’s complicated. But she’s definitely queer.)

Caption

Tammy is described as a lesbian. Sarah isn’t labeled but her relationships suggest she may be bisexual.

The pilot for Transparent is available streaming free on Amazon. To provide feedback and help this show be picked for further production, complete the survey at AmazonOriginals.com.

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Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Brooklyn. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair.

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10 Comments

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    I really liked this show I hope it gets picked up everybody vote for it. Also it ended with an “Operator” cover, which reminded me of The L Word episode that closed with an “Operator” cover, back before that show sucked, and also Jill Soloway, I just love her so much.

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    Wasn’t it written *and* directed by Jill Solloway? Not sure how they’ll handle Tambor-as-Maura’s transition if the show gets picked up, and I just now realized that’s partially because I’m actually really ignorant of how physical transition might work for someone in their late 60s / early 70s. (Not a doctor, but I know age…does stuff, so I wouldn’t assume the answer is “exactly as it works in your twenties.”)

    I’d like to see that story very much, and I’m willing to give Tambor and the producers the benefit of the doubt on execution. Everyone should try to queerbomb the results as much as possible, though, because right now it’s the worst rated of their dramatic pilots with I think the fewest reviews, so…that’s not great.

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    That was really wonderful, I’m glad I watched it. All the characters are really interesting and fleshed out, and I’m really interested to see how their stories continue to develop. I was also a little skeptical about Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans women, but after that pilot I’m definitely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He seemed to approach the character of Maura with real sensitivity and respect. I’m very interested to see how this progresses.

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    I really, really liked this. I thought it was so well done and each of the characters made me feel a solid balance of “I really like you” and “I’m cringing at everything.” I will be v sad if it doesn’t get picked up.

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    Among many other roles, Jeffrey Tambor played a crossdressing lawyer/judge on Hill Street Blues. As a character actor he often portrays sympathetic buffoons, such as his blustering secret service agent in Hellboy. But perhaps Tambor’s casting in Transparent is intended as ironic, portraying the trans character as the most well-adjusted of the bunch, the voice of reason in a family of drama queens.

    As for Salon’s click-bait hit piece on Jared Leto, I found the author far more patronizing than the actor. The article is primarily a rant about Hollywood homophobia, and the writer appropriates trans issues opportunistically to bulk up his case.

    D’Addario’s attempts to castigate Leto’s remarks as insulting to trans folks make us sound prissy and hypersensitive. So we’re supposedly up in arms over being referred to as “transgendered” rather than “transgender”? Please, we are not in tears over grammar. Likewise, it’s hardly a joke at our expense when Jarod recounts his first encounter with full-body waxing. Like waterboarding, the author should try it himself before claiming it trivializes our experience to classify it as torture.

    For those who may have been shocked at the unglamorous aspects of Leto’s portrayal of a downtrodden trans woman, I found it a painfully authentic portrayal of the gritty reality of transitioning on the poverty line back in the 80’s.

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    I did enjoy this show’s pilot, for the most part, but I had a very hard time swallowing how they portrayed the family’s Jewish heritage and how that related to them being “spoiled, selfish, rich kids”. It feels very much like stereotyping and like a very negative portrayal. I will continue to watch the show, but this aspect of misrepresentation should not be overlooked. Please include any commentary you may feel about this is in the next recap? It’d be nice to discuss all the aspects of how groups are being characterized, not just the queer groups in the show.

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