Trans­par­ent’s ide­al­is­tic bub­ble burst

Ac­cu­sa­tions against star Jef­frey Tam­bor com­pro­mise a ‘won­der­ful cult’

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - VI­VIAN YEE AND TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER New York Times

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.

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