Intimacy is a difficult thing to film. Rather, it’s difficult to film well. You can capture two people clutched closely together, in a vulnerable moment, so that it feels as if the camera is encroaching on their privacy, an intruder. You can film in close-up, for a more practical intimacy, catching every hair and freckle. But to really feel like you’re getting a close understanding of the characters onscreen, there’s no list of actions one should take—it can be a challenge. Jill Soloway has figured it out.
Her new series, Transparent, went up in its entirety on Amazon Prime Video at the end of September. It’s a model much like Netflix’s, but Amazon lacks that company’s power and influence. As such, there was much conversation when the show first went up, but whether because of its subject matter or because most people simply didn’t know how to watch it, that conversation has died down significantly in only just over a month. Soloway’s real power with the first ten episodes (its been green-lit for a second season) is her nuanced grasp on emotion, her ability to use visual storytelling to get deep and intimate with her characters in ways unmatched by anyone else on television right now.
Soloway presents Los Angeles as a sleepy, hazy city, usually in a yellow or blueish hue that evokes melancholy and, at times, the surreal. There’s a certain strategy to this, to balance the low-key vibe with the unexpected, as there are many moments throughout the season of high emotion and high drama that are accentuated and strengthened by the muted aesthetic of Soloway’s approach. To use a striking example from later on in the season, a flashback episode, a teenaged Ali (Emily Robinson, the knock-out spitting image of Gaby Hoffmann, who plays the adult Ali, both of whom give the character a perfect air of unpredictability and heart) has a flirty story with an older boy. A scene of the two horsing around under a bridge on the beach ends with the boy walking over to kiss the adult Ali who has suddenly appeared, as the teenage one looks on. It is a bizarre moment, a stirring break from the laidback, straightforward storytelling we’ve become accustomed to, a moment so beautifully open to interpretation and yet sure of itself and its audience.
Jeffrey Tambor plays Mort at the start of the series, who, in his seventies, has finally decided to make the transition into Maura, her true identity (the pronoun switch-up within that sentence reflects the trouble that some characters have in the show, too). Tambor gives so much weight to the performance, so much life and subtlety. Look no further than his facial expressions while on stage during the trans talent show, as he realizes all three of his children have left the audience, and his nervousness gives way to deep sadness. His vulnerability as Maura is almost tangible, like you could reach out and grab it. You want to, you want to yell at her to embrace herself and to be happy. Or in the flashback episode, when the other cross-dressers are rejecting trans women and the look on Tambor’s face tells a whole story on its own, the pain and denial and repression that Maura’s been forced to deal with, but that her breaking point is upon her. Maura is the beating heart of the series, and Tambor absolutely nails every aspect of the demanding, complicated performance.
The best reason I can offer to give Transparent a chance, however, is the unique opportunity it provides to process serious and developing cultural ideas along with the writers behind the show and the characters they’re bringing to life. Trans issues are gaining real traction and influence in Western society right now and many people are being confronted with adapting to something they do not understand. This cultural process is reflected twofold with Transparent, wherein both its characters and its creators are actively working through it. “Yeah, it’s been a process that’s emerged for me over the course of the past year as I’ve become more educated about trans politics,” Soloway said in an interview with Time. “And it’s still quite a sticky subject for many people because there’s so much that’s unspoken about transness.” Soloway herself has run into much criticism in her handling of certain elements and in some mistakes she’s made, the most prevalent being the choice to cast Tambor, a cisgender male, in the main role.
Her defense of the choice (“I think in this particular situation I had to just cast the best actor.”) has rubbed some the wrong way, even if his performance is remarkable, as has the “trans affirmative action” program that has been instituted with the show’s cast and production staff. What this essentially means is that many extras are trans actors, other significant roles are played by trans actors (including Dale, a trans man, who are even less represented in film and television) and several crew members, consultants, and producers are trans, as well.
While trans actors getting work is never a bad thing, Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan offered some constructive criticism to Soloway at a New Yorker Festival panel last month, responding specifically to Soloway’s plan to hire a trans writer for season two of the show: “I think great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn’t necessarily translate.” Soloway stood by the choice by comparing it to a writer’s room full of men thinking they can write women just fine. “I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”
This is an endlessly interesting discussion for me, because at its core it’s a conversation about pigeon-holing writers and approximating experiences. Can straight people write gay characters? Can gay actors play straight people? Should Jared Leto have played Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club? For its first season, Transparent‘s writer’s room consisted of only cisgender men and women. Will the second season improve purely by virtue of having a trans writer on board? Will the show’s treatment of trans characters really feel more authentic? These are all intriguing points of discussion. I see Kohan’s point, but Soloway’s spirit of inclusiveness and sensitivity fit with the aesthetic of her show, while it wouldn’t necessarily fit with Orange is the New Black. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a room of non-trans writers delineating a trans experience, but the addition of a talented trans writer strikes not of tokenism but as something that can only bring more nuance and insight to a show already overflowing with both.
I say all this to establish the kind of showrunner Soloway is: sensitive, intimate, careful, layered. Transparent succeeds so triumphantly because of this attention to detail and welcoming vibe. The series should be celebrated for its serious and mannered depiction of trans issues and the struggle of transition and coming out to your loved ones, but it connects because of the universality of its message. The intention is to have audiences identify with Maura, learn from her, but also recognize that her transition represents the much wider net of alienation and rejection leading to acceptance and inclusion. That is a feeling we can all relate to, which is always the best way to build empathy for something you may not fully understand.
This confluence of writers, characters, and audience all working together through this progression, evolving together and learning from each other, makes for an absolutely singular viewing experience, something unlike any other series around right now. If anything, it makes our relationships with these characters even deeper and more well-defined. Each of Maura’s kids deals with the news in their own way, on a varying scale of resistance, but each reaction feels real, earned, genuine. Any show could accomplish that much in terms of characterization, but Transparent is special, in that it gives us moments like Maura’s talent show, or Ali’s story in the flashback episode. These are things that feel as if they couldn’t exist within any other show, refreshing scenes of heartbreak and inspired storytelling. Soloway and her team are achieving poetic stuff, telling stories of gender and identity, sexuality and intimacy, through every character’s unique perspective. It is undoubtedly one of the strongest contemporary television series, and Amazon’s first convincing argument for their creative offerings. This is a gorgeous, melancholic and enthralling series that deserves your attention for how earnestly it wants to teach, learn, and entertain, as we go through it all with the characters, step by step.