“Transparent,” the Amazon Prime hit that roars into its third season this week, packs an unlikely assortment of main characters on the small screen. It tells the story of a Los Angeles-based Jewish family as they learn their father, a retired professor, is transgender.
Transgender storylines are no stranger to film and television these days, especially on streaming services: Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and “Sense8” both feature main characters who are transgender, as do network TV series of the recent past, such as “Glee” and “Ugly Betty.”
But those characters exist within an ensemble cast whose central plotline focuses on something other than LGBT issues. Rarely has a transgender protagonist been put so front and center as she is in “Transparent.”
“Are you saying you’re going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?” Sarah Pfefferman, the oldest daughter, asked her father in season 1 — just after he told her he would be transitioning from Morton to become Maura.
“No honey,” Maura replies. “All my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”
San Francisco native Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura and has won back-to-back Emmy awards, plus one Golden Globe, for his portrayal. The creator of the series, Jill Soloway, who, like Tambor, is Jewish, also has won back-to-back Emmys, for outstanding director for a comedy series.
The Forward two years ago referred to “Transparent” as “the Jewiest show ever.”
Micah Fitzerman-Blue, one of the writers and producers of the series, spoke on Sept. 11 at the Osher Marin JCC about his difficulties and triumphs making the series. Fitzerman-Blue is one of only two male writers on the show, and he’s straight. Soloway is also straight, although her father came out as transgender about five years ago.
“I know very little about these [transgender] issues,” Fitzerman-Blue said during the panel discussion.
He added the team includes one transgender writer. “We do not profess to be expert on the issues at hand. We listen and we study and we ask stupid questions, and we get smarter.”
Though the show has received many awards and plaudits, some critics have spoken out harshly against “Transparent” for using a cisgender, straight man to play the lead character, and for likewise utilizing cisgender, straight writers to create stories about transgender struggles. Cisgender is a word describing a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.
“Straight out of the gate, the show seems to hit almost every imaginable trans stereotype, from ‘born in the wrong body’ to being isolated, alone and in misery,” wrote S.E. Smith, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Global Comment. “It’s the usual prosaic, accessible tale of an older white woman entering transition and struggling with mundane, middle-class matters.”
Tambor himself, in accepting his Emmy award on Sept. 18, stated that cisgender men portraying transgender women must stop. “I would very much like to be the last cisgender male playing a transgender female,” the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying backstage. “I think we are there now.”
Despite those types of criticisms, the show mostly has been met with abundant praise, with several publications calling it the best TV show currently airing, not just because of its portrayal of transgender issues, but because its creators paint a rich portrait of characters struggling with loneliness, sexuality and self-actualization.
It’s also “more Jew-y” than anything else that’s been on television, Fitzerman-Blue said during the panel discussion. Not only that, but Judaism is not the butt of a joke, as so often is the case in movies and television, Fitzerman-Blue noted, as have publications such as Tablet and the Forward.
Rather, it’s interwoven in scenes as part of daily rituals for many characters, such as Maura when she lights Shabbat candles. The opening sequence for the show features bar and bat mitzvah video clips from the 1960s through the ’90s.
“Judaism is the setting,” Fitzerman-Blue said. “Anyone can see, even if they’re not Jewish, what are our family’s rituals, how do they bind us together, how are they a source of frustration, how do they connect us to something deeper?”
The entire season 3 of “Transparent” will be available on Amazon Prime starting on Friday, Sept. 23, and a fourth season has already been picked up.
The event at the Marin JCC was one part dialogue about “Transparent” and one part workshop on how to make a TV show.
Fitzerman-Blue invited attendees to come up and read parts from different episodes and discuss their significance. One of the livelier segments involved a scene where an activist poet refuses an espresso because it’s made in Israel.
“I don’t want blood on my hands,” the poet says in the scene to several disgruntled characters at a funeral.
Fitzerman-Blue again pointed out that Judaism is the setting, not the focus of the scene.
“This is not our show taking a side street to talk about Israel … it’s about having that partner who just picks a fight, who just can’t let go of a thing and forgets where they are,” he said.