Transparent’s idealistic bubble burst
Accusations against star Jeffrey Tambor compromise a ‘wonderful cult’
For the acclaimed Amazon series “Transparent,” things were supposed to be different.
A pop-culture phenomenon that debuted in 2014, the show has collected Emmy Awards, Golden Globes and critical praise for telling the groundbreaking story of an aging college professor who comes out as transgender. But now “Transparent’’ is reeling in the wake of the same sordid allegations strafing the rest of the entertainment world after its star, Jeffrey Tambor, was accused of sexual harassment by a co-star and a former personal assistant.
As Amazon investigates the complaints, the series is suspended in an agonizing limbo. For instance, Tambor was widely believed to be leaving “Transparent” after he issued a statement saying, “I don’t see how I can return.” Yet a representative for the actor disclosed to The Times recently that, in fact, Tambor had no plans to quit.
Now the creators and writers of “Transparent” find themselves trying to construct a fifth season that may or may not include their central character, Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman, while struggling to navigate the sudden upheaval of a show they believed was advancing an important cause both in front of and behind the camera.
In interviews, several cast and crew members said that the socially progressive values of “Transparent” — with its embrace of transgender characters and its commitment to workplace inclusivity — made the accusations of sexual harassment all the harder to process.
“It was devastating,” said Micah Fitzerman-Blue, a former writer and producer who is still in touch with many of the show’s staff members. “It’s just incredibly sad that that happened in the midst of something that felt so revolutionary.”
Perhaps most wrenching of all, the cast and crew grieved over the idea that a workplace they had thought of as part utopian experiment, part family — a “wonderful cult,” some members of the cast called it — had been compromised.
“Even in the safest of sets, where there were people who were really thinking constantly about how do we make sure we’re heart-connected at work, things happened, or things may have happened,” the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, said on a panel a few days after the second of three women, the “Transparent” actress Trace Lysette, came forward with accusations about Tambor.
Soloway, whose production company is called Topple — as in “topple the patriarchy” — had made the show’s mission and its art virtually indistinguishable. (In the last few years, Soloway came to identify as gender nonbinary — neither woman nor man — and prefers genderneutral language.)
Soloway dotted the set with at least 60 transgender and gender nonconforming writers, actors and crew members, as well as many more extras, through what Soloway called the show’s “transformative action” program. A pair of transgender artists-turned-producers vetted the story lines to ensure authenticity.
In interviews with writers, producers and an actress arranged by Soloway’s personal publicist, Fitzerman-Blue was one of the few to say he believed the women’s allegations against Tambor; most others would not discuss them.
The first accusations surfaced last month when Tambor’s former assistant on the show, Van Barnes, wrote in a private Facebook post that the actor had sexually harassed and groped her.
Then Lysette, the actress who played Shea, told The Hollywood Reporter that Tambor had once thrust his pelvis against her hip while on set, kissed her on the lips several times and repeatedly made sexually suggestive remarks to her.
Two of Lysette’s friends — Rain Valdez, an actress who worked as a producer on “Transparent,” and Mindy Jones, a singer — said in interviews that Lysette had confided in them about Tambor’s actions at the time. Another actress, Alexandra Billings, said in a statement to The Times that she had overheard Tambor tell Lysette, “My God, Trace. I want to attack you sexually.”
A third woman, a makeup artist named Tamara Delbridge, told the website Refinery 29 last month that Tambor had forcibly kissed her in 2001 on the set of the film “Never Again.”
Tambor, who dedicated his best actor prize at the 2015 Golden Globes — to the transgender community, said in his statement that he regretted “if any action of mine was ever misinterpreted by anyone as being aggressive,” but has denied the accusations.
Tambor, too, produced a supporting account. In a statement provided by the actor’s publicist, Allan Mayer, a hairstylist on the show, Terry Baliel, said that he had never witnessed the actor doing anything of an “inappropriate sexual” nature.
In his own statement, Tambor referred obliquely to his own sense of discomfort with what was happening on “Transparent,” saying that a “politicized atmosphere” had afflicted the set. “This is no longer the job I signed up for,” he said.
A few later, in a new statement, Mayer expanded on Tambor’s position: “What he said was that given the toxic atmosphere and the politicization on the set, it’s very hard for him to see how he can possibly return. But no final decision for next year has been made, either by Jeffrey or by Amazon.” He declined to elaborate on what Tambor meant by toxic atmosphere and politicization of the set.
Like Lysette, some viewers and critics have called for the show to shift the camera lens from Tambor’s character onto her transgender friends and other supporting characters.
“We cannot let trans content be taken down by a single cis man,” Our Lady J, one of the show’s transgender writers, wrote in an Instagram post after the accusations against Tambor emerged.
Rhys Ernst, a producer, said he had argued to friends that Tambor was a “socially responsible exception” to the principle of casting transgender people in transgender roles, given the show’s overall benefit to the movement.
Jeffrey Tambor, centre, plays transgender woman Maura in “Transparent.” From left, Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker play his children, and Judith Light plays his ex-wife.