Trans­par­ent side­steps car­i­ca­ture, sen­sa­tion­al­ism

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - ARTS & LIFE -

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.

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