Idiot Box: Amazon Prime your social commentary

October 22, 2014

It often seems like the only thing families have in common is their final initial. Many of us are familiar with these pervasive dysfunctional families, if not ambivalent members of one. Family sagas of dysfunction are hardly new to television, but those with contentious social issues nestled inside the narrative are more rare. The challenge is presenting them within a striking and believable story, raising both visibility and questions without being preachy or isolating.

The creative team behind Transparent, Amazon’s answer to the success of Netflix’s original series, such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, treads this line with the grace of a seasoned acrobat. A show about an idiosyncratic group of biologically related humans, Transparent locates its nexus in the family patriarch’s process of coming out as a woman. Mort becomes Maura, stepping gingerly out of the closet in her twilight years. It’s a transition that her three grown children attempt to accommodate amid their own respective crises of identity, their flawed and stunted natures tripping them up at every corner.

“Cinematic” is a buzzword thrown far too often at critically acclaimed shows in this Golden Age of TV, but Transparent does feel less like a TV show and more like a film. It’s defined by a mood and narrative process that we’re more used to seeing in indie films, lacking the polish we’re accustomed to seeing on television. Perhaps that’s why it’s so suited for binge-watching. The end of each episode never feels like a definitive break, and the cruising narrative and rough-around-the-edges vibe are perfectly adapted for continuous viewing.

As a transgender woman reconciling her need to be honest about her identity and her feeling of obligation to her children, Maura, portrayed by Jeffrey Tambor, is arresting to watch. Any Arrested Development fans familiar with Tambor’s role as dysfunctional family patriarch will be struck by the difference here, though Tambor still carries himself with the rock-in-the-storm serenity of a prison rabbi (“no touching!”).

More importantly, though, Maura’s struggle with acceptance is void of the stereotypes attached to transgender characters. She is not on the fringes of society—in fact, she appears to be the head of a privileged Jewish family based in a wealthy L.A. suburb—nor does she cling to the image of a “noble victim.” Though she exhibits a quiet strength throughout, she’s just as flawed and conflicted as her children. As they attempt to figure out their own love lives and gender identities, as well as be proper grown-ups with jobs, Maura tries and fails to dole out the proper dose of tough love.

A relevant criticism about the character is that she isn’t played by a trans actor, an objective that the media has to reconcile with its ultimate objective of selling shows by casting big-name actors, like Jeffrey Tambor. The sad truth is that there just aren’t many mainstream transgender actors, though pioneers like Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black are beginning to change that. The hope is that Transparent can pave the way for similar shows with trans people actually playing the main roles, and the fear that audiences won’t buy it will be rendered moot by a surge in popular interest.

Initially, it was strange to be watching Transparent alongside shopping for books and getting that rush of dopamine following the confirmation of my free two-day shipping, but I quickly got over it. Television is a constantly changing medium, one that the Internet has taken over in full force. Some of the freshest shows have emerged out of this revolution, a trend even HBO has recognized since it announced its transition to a stand-alone service (goodbye, cable).

If that’s what it takes to avert the bureaucracy of network television and get the representation of minority characters the media badly needs, I’m all for it. Let’s hope the growing pains are minimal.

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