Transparent sidesteps caricature, sensationalism
poignant and caricature-free performance that truly anchors Transparent.
Despite the inherent challenges of such a role, Tambor never doubted for a second that he wanted to play Maura. “I threw myself at Jill,” the actor explained recently in a joint interview with Judith Light, who co-stars as Maura’s aggrieved ex-wife, Shelly. “I mean, I wanted this. It’s my Lear.”
Maura has indeed been career-defining for the 71-year-old Tambor, previously best known for roles in more funny-ha-ha comedies, particularly the crooked patriarch George Bluth in the beloved Arrested Development and the brilliant second banana/buffoon Hank Kingsley on HBO’s revered Larry Sanders Show. But in September, to the surprise of exactly no one, he won the Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series.
In the current season, Maura struggles with loneliness as well as the scrutiny she feels coming from others, both of which serve as painful reminders that coming out is just the first of many challenges for a transgender woman. Still, for Tambor, taking part in Maura’s unpredictable journey has been nothing but rewarding.
“It’s such a pleasure to not know exactly where you’re going — maybe that’s why I like Maura so much,” he said. “Maura literally does not know so much. She doesn’t know how to make up her face, she doesn’t know how to select a heel, or indeed who a true friend is. To play that is very, very daunting and yet liberating.”
Acclaimed as it is, Tambor’s performance has been criticized by some activists who argue that a non-transgender man playing Maura amounts to a kind of blackface.
Tambor says he agrees “to a degree” with the critique, calling the role a “huge honour.” In the service of getting Maura right, he relies heavily on input from those he refers to as his “teachers” in the trans community, including the artists Zackary Druker and Rhys Ernst, who are consultants and producers on the series. He thanked both by name at the Emmys and dedicated his victory to the trans community.
The spirit of openness that guides Tambor no doubt trickles down from Soloway, for whom Transparent is an intensely personal project. The writer was inspired by the experiences of her “Moppa,” who came out as a trans woman at age 75. (Gaby Hoffmann’s character, Ali, uses the same term for Maura.)
“I hope the trans community feels like they have a partner in us,” said Soloway, who has directed about half the episodes and welcomes feedback. “Tell us more, tell us everything we’re getting right, what’s beloved, what’s hated.”
Soloway’s radically democratic style stands out in a medium that is thought to be collaborative, but has for the past decade or more been associated with (mostly male) auteurs known for being intensely controlling.
Hoffmann invokes the idea of the “good-enough mother,” borrowed from child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, to explain Soloway’s creative leadership style: “You create a safe space where nobody is going to get physically hurt, everyone knows they are loved, they can do no wrong. You literally make children feel so safe they will fall on their face, but they won’t break their nose, because you’ve removed all sharp objects. I believe that’s a great way to rear kids, and that’s how Jill runs her set. She’s the ideal mom.”
For all the praise rightfully heaped on Tambor’s performance, Transparent is about much more than Maura’s transition. An exploration of how one person’s self-deception can influence behaviour of subsequent generations, it gives nearly equal air time to the struggles of Maura’s maddeningly narcissistic adult children, each of whom is facing down a particular identity crisis.
Sarah (Amy Landecker), a married mother of two, throws her seemingly content life into chaos by leaving her husband for her college flame — who happens to be a woman — a decision she seems to regret in Season 2. Josh, an aging, commitment-phobic hipster played by Jay Duplass, goes in the opposite direction, diving into a grownup relationship with Raquel, a rabbi played by Kathryn Hahn, and welcoming his long-lost teenage son into the family. Hoffmann is the baby of the family, Ali, jobless, adrift and deeply confused about her sexual identity.
Their struggles, it is suggested, are a byproduct of Maura’s years in the closet — as Ali says during a pivotal fight with Maura, the family religion is secrecy — and may even be traced to Tanta Gittel’s long-ago trauma.
While the show has garnered much attention for its sensitive depiction of transgender issues, less attention has been paid to its handling of other taboo subjects, particularly faith and sexuality.
One widely discussed scene arrives in the second episode of the new season, when Maura shares an intimate moment in the bathtub with her ex-wife, Shelly. Even if Maura weren’t transgender, the moment would still be remarkable for its depiction of mature sexuality.
“There’s a collective unconscious that Jung talked about. A lot of that’s happening in this particular story,” said Light. (This cast likes quoting psychotherapists.) “It’s not just about a transgender person. It’s about an authentic life wanting to be lived truthfully, and I think at some very deep level everybody relates to that. People long to be their true selves and to be loved for it.”
From left, Gaby Hoffmann, Judith Light, Jay Duplass, Jeffrey Tambor and Amy Landecker are the Pfeffermans on Transparent.