TV Series Review: The Ironic Conservatism of “Transparent”

12 Jan

Most of the reviews I write deal with blockbuster movies, since that’s the type of film I know most readers will be seeing. That said, I also try to make a point of engaging with art that falls outside the domains with which I’m conventionally familiar. Since I happen to already be an Amazon Prime subscriber, I thought I’d give “Transparent” a look (particularly given how much I enjoyed Amazon’s “Mozart In The Jungle,” which is excellent and well worth seeing). Additionally, “Transparent” won big at the Golden Globes last weekend, which makes this a particularly topical subject.

“Transparent” is the story of three disaffected young Los Angeles adults and their father, who is transitioning to a female gender identity. While the series’ framing story is the journey of the eponymous Maura (depicted with remarkable charisma by Jeffrey Tambor, of “Arrested Development” fame), in a unique twist, it is not Maura but rather her cisgender children who are depicted enduring the lowest lows. Sarah (Amy Landecker) abandons her husband and child in favor of a torrid affair with her college lover; Josh (Jay Duplass) is a struggling music producer who carries on sexual relationships with his young ingénues; Ali (Gaby Hoffman) has failed entirely to launch into adulthood. It is through an almost obsessive focus on the decadence of these three protagonists that the show’s greatest irony is revealed:

While in the midst of laying out a vision of social progressivism, “Transparent” simultaneously presents a deeply subversive critique of the modernist cultural ethos.

First, a limiter: this is by no means a suggestion that “Transparent” is not firmly grounded in a progressive value set, particularly regarding the concept of gender identity. It most certainly is. The substance and legitimacy of that value set, however, are not subjects of this particular discussion. What fascinates me is the portrait “Transparent” paints of interactions between moral agents in the contemporary context, and within which of these interactions one may find genuine human flourishing.

According to the contemporary modern vision, – the Disney-esque Follow-Your-Heart-At-All-Costs, Burn-Your-Bridges philosophy – the highest level of self-actualization is attained through the unfettered embrace of one’s own autonomy. This is a road that, as the miserably dark, ego-absorbed journeys of Sarah, Josh, and Ali highlight, leads to precisely the opposite of internal fulfillment.

Conversely, Maura’s story unfolds as an exercise of individual autonomy within the context of community. It is Maura’s community center which provides her with the courage to come out to her children. It is Maura’s celebration of Jewish traditions which helps her turbulent family cohere. It is Maura’s love for her children through which the compassion of her character is most fully evidenced. On a core level, Maura sees her identity not just as a function of her gender/sexuality, but as a function of her friendships with the people around her, her love for her children, and the religio-cultural values that anchor her life. “Transparent” affirms that our sense of self-definition, as well as the roles we inhabit, are not actually dependent on rejecting social structures and values in the pursuit of an amorphous ideal of pure autonomy; indeed, one of the series’ most touching moments is a family Shabbos celebration – an a-modern touch if ever there was one. Throughout the series, the truest forms of happiness are depicted as inextricably bound up with traditionally “conservative” norms of family, self-sacrifice, and community.

In short, individual autonomy within a framework of communitarian obligations is not necessarily an oxymoronic concept.

As a good example of the opposite tendency, “Girls” (at least what I’ve seen of it) offers no such juxtaposition between self-constructed alienation and a life-wholly-realized. Yes, Lena Dunham’s characters are insufferably self-centered, and no, there’s no counterpoint drawn: accordingly, “Girls” ends up as a study of the vapid unpleasantness brought on by fully realized modernity. “Transparent” works as unintentional social critique precisely because it depicts alternatives to the pure gratification of Self, and so avoids lapsing into jejune pop-nihilism.

Visions of fragmentation have dominated the zeitgeist of cultural storytelling for several decades now. Guided by the sterile, ultra-existentialist vision of Camus and Sartre, narratives in fiction have portrayed social alienation as a necessary consequence of self-fulfillment and the emergence of genuine personal identity. Perhaps, as the millennial generation begins to shape the ethos of a post-postmodern era, this presumption is beginning to change: though as yet classical teleology appears unlikely to make a cultural comeback, recognizing the innate human impulse toward flourishing-in-community is certainly a valuable start.

[General note: this show addresses and depicts mature sexual themes. It is not suitable for general audiences – and indeed, probably only appeals to a very niche group of art-TV aficionados. This piece is a work of critical analysis, not endorsement.]


Posted by on January 12, 2015 in Contemporary


2 responses to “TV Series Review: The Ironic Conservatism of “Transparent”

  1. Francois Sagat 2015

    February 6, 2015 at 1:34 am

    Look for me on future episodes of Transparent. This is one of my favorite shows and I look forward to joining the cast if they ask me! THIS SHOW IS GROUNDBREAKING IN EVERY WAY! THE SHOW PUSHES THE LIMITS OF GAY RIGHTS!

  2. SHR

    January 5, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Hi, having just sat through a marathon session of Transgender (I show I resisted watching for quite some time), I appreciate your analysis. In my interpretation, the show attributes the disaffection of the children to several culprits, and modernism is only one of them; to read the story through the polarizing lens of the autonomous self vs the traditionalist community is to do this series an injustice. IMO, the dysfunction of the three kids may be read through 3 lenses that the show is concerned with: family, religion, and culture. The family itself is partly to blame because there was essentially a vacuum when Ali, Josh, and Sarah were growing up. The myth of the nuclear family clearly did not cohere in this particular unit; parents who are not true to themselves at some fundamental level, who in essence go through their lives as liars, do not make good parents. The father lived life lying (no other option, really), while the mother was herself a vacuum always looking outward at others, infantilizing the husband, but never stopping to consider herself as an agent. As a result, the kids have a hard time figuring out how to ground themselves. Second of all, Judaism itself — given the 20th century experience — seems partly to be a culprit as well. The repression of adult sexuality for the sake of cultural cohesion, the divisive need for secrecy since individual relationships are not prized between family members, and finally an element of defensive intellectual and verbal competitiveness/performance, all inform the cultural Judaism of the Pfeffermans. This is the baggage of the concentration camps which the show frequently alludes to, and for my money, is exactly on point. (I am 53 and was raised in a Jewish family). Thirdly, American culture itself is implicated as a source of the children’s disaffection — and here we may be in agreement. Throw this particular family, with this particular cultural inheritance, into the cauldron of American consumer freedom, and we witness the inability of the children to forge lasting bonds within a community. In the desperate search to realize themselves, they jump from partner to partner. More troubling is that any bonds they are able to forge are based on sex — which the show is wise enough to reveal as short-lived and insubstantial. But again — Judaism is as much a subject of this series as the theme of the transgender parent, and it would be a mistake to ignore the connections the show is trying to draw between the pain of the characters and their Jewish heritage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: