Amazon’s ‘Transparent’ brings moral urgency to LGBT television

Amazon's 'Transparent' brings moral urgency to LGBT television

By Dylan Galper / For The Pitt News

Society’s attitude towards the LGBT community has experienced a dramatic change over the past few decades and with it, so has our television programming. 

A Gallup poll from May showed that support for gay marriage has reached an all-time high at 55 percent, and state government officials are responding by striking down same-sex marriage bans across the country. On May 20, Pennsylvania legalized same-sex marriage when a federal district judge struck down a same-sex marriage ban. Since then, 13 other states have issued similar rulings, bringing the total number of states that recognize same-sex marriage to 32.

Changing trends in television writing has further reflected this cultural development. A plethora of recent shows have featured one or more prominent characters who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. One of the most popular comedies on television, the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” takes a comedic look at the trials and tribulations of gay life in American suburbia, featuring Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett, two members of a not-so-run-of-the-mill family, navigating the harsh waters of same-sex parenthood.

Although “Modern Family” is certainly the most popular of the shows featuring prominent LGBT characters, a number of other series attempt to address the sensitive subject in less light-hearted ways. Programs such as Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” BBC’s “Orphan Black” and many others have explored the lives of LGBT characters trying to cope with the ramifications of their colorful lifestyles in a world that is, in so many ways, still dominated by shades of black and white.

But few have addressed the issue with as much sensitivity and moral urgency as “Transparent.” The series, lauded as one of the best new shows of the fall, examines the lives of three adult siblings named Ali, Josh and Sarah Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker, respectively) and their father, Mort (a wonderful Jeffrey Tambor), who reveals that he is a transgender woman named Maura. 

In the first several episodes, Maura struggles to come out to her selfish and easily distracted children, all three of whom struggle with their own sexual identities in various ways. The most obvious comparison is between Maura and her oldest child, Sarah, who, stuck in marriage she is coming to regret, rekindles an old romance that she had with a female roommate in college named Tammy (Melora Hardin). 

Convinced that she has found her soulmate, Sarah leaves her husband, with whom she has two children, to pursue Tammy. But she soon comes to the disheartening realization that the passionate affair may be nothing more than a delusion of grandeur.

Ali, lost and afloat in her own world, also suffers from a crisis of identity, unsure of herself physically and sexually.

Josh, a music producer living a childish life, fails to convince Kaya, a musician he is seeing, to keep their child. At first, it seems like an admirable attempt at mature behavior, but we soon realize the futility of his and his sister’s actions. We come to understand that their dilemmas are merely the illustration of a universal theme: Doing what’s right is rarely as easy as it should be.

Yet, nowhere is this ethos more evident than in Maura’s plight. Relieved at first to finally be living the life she’s always wanted, she soon realizes that her new life comes with many unwanted and unintended consequences.

What makes the show work so well is the amount of humor and joie de vivre it manages to infuse into these complicated issues, making us conscious of them without bludgeoning us over the head with them.

In one of the best and most painful scenes of the series, Sarah, Ali and Maura take a trip to the mall where they are treated to a free sample of skin care products. It’s a wonderfully done scene, a touching but humorous portrait of mother, Maura, experimenting with her newfound womanhood; Sarah making sure she looks presentable for Tammy; and Ali, so unsure of her own femininity — all engaging in a traditionally feminine activity. 

Shortly after this, they all head to the restroom where Maura and Sarah are accosted by a rude woman who fears that Maura’s presence in the women’s restroom is corrupting her teenage daughters. It’s a painful reminder that despite legal victories, the war for LGBT acceptance and understanding is still far from over.

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