Transparent: 1x01 Pilot.
Sometimes shows find you at the right point in your life. Sometimes they don’t and when you come back to them, after something has fallen into place, they just make that much more sense, and figuring out why they didn’t the first time around becomes part of understanding the show and yourself better – but sometimes, rarely, they come around at the right moment straight away, and are all the more resonant and powerful for it.
Transparent is a show about family. It is a show about the relationships between siblings and children with their parents, the way growing up in specific households, with their customs and rules, shapes us – to the extent that they only really appear as customs and rules when we are capable to step out of that normalcy and develop the capacity to contrast and compare, rather than just take for granted what has always been reality. This is what growing up is, realizing that parents are fallible, that other people live different lives in different conditions, that things you take for granted, good and bad, aren’t normal in other people’s lives.
Transparent takes its time to flesh out these characters, Maura and her three grown-up children, it goes back and forth between the past and the present to convey how they grew into the people they are now, how the past shaped them, and how much each of them still lives there, to an extent. It’s Maura’s decision to live authentically after so many years of dressing up as someone she wasn’t that triggers the children’s hesitant investigation of their past. It opens wounds but also possibilities to revisit wounds sustained in the past, it forces them to go back to decisions they made, consciously or not, and maybe reconsider them. Maura spent years hiding who she was, and figuring it out at the same time – the power of secrets, to both force into hiding and force into investigation – but her three children seem utterly lost in their present existence, Sarah stuck in an unhappy marriage that she seems to just have fallen into and accepted as the daily routine that it is, Josh, successful but with absolutely no clue what he wants or needs from himself and other people, in his relationships, Ali, bright and brilliant but incapable of focusing any of that on a project, scattered through iterations of herself that only obscure who she is, or could be.
There are no simple answers on this show. The flashbacks to the past are there to paint a picture of what it meant to exist in the Pfefferman household, both from the perspective of the kids and the parents. The pathologies that the children exhibit are rooted in these experiences, but Transparent is more interested in a panoramic, atmospheric view of the family life, picking small significant moments for individual characters, but also capturing the other side of the coin: Maura struggles to become herself throughout the years, but she also knows exactly what she would risk by living more openly earlier, before her children grew up, before 1989 became 2014. She pays the price for not living freely before, but this isn’t a story about suffering – more often than not, the show captures moments of giddy triumph, when she finds a language to express her identity, and people who understand at least part of her struggle. On the show, in the beginning, Maura knows who she is – that is the process that she has gone through, those past 25 years we see in flashbacks – and she is at the point of wanting to communicate her identity to the world. She is coming out. As she is doing so, her children realize they have no clue what they want or who they are, and their father’s quest becomes a sort of catalyst. At their worst, they appropriate Maura’s struggle and rather than being supportive of her, they are too caught up in their own issues to even listen to her (in the first place, they make it impossible for her to tell them about being female when she first tries to, at the dinner table, by just making the assumption that she has cancer and refusing to afford her the opportunity to speak for herself). Often, everyone on this show is at their worst, most self-involved and selfish, incapable of perceiving other people’s struggles and suffering. At the same time, they are all starting a process of self-discovery, if at different speeds and with several mis-steps, that connects to their father’s story occasionally. Most of all, they are entangled in each other, both by how they relate now, as a family, and by their shared past of growing up in the same household and being shaped by similar experiences.
It’s an interesting choice that is made in this episode, to show the children first, show them in their daily routines, their habits, and only then introduce Maura, wanting to tell her children but still wearing the costume they think is her true identity, and then failing, at the dinner table. Josh is too busy being in love with one of the musicians he is meant to manage (and we will later learn that he doesn’t know himself well enough to even be able to say “I love you” to anyone and truly mean it) – and balancing that relationship with something that looks like an affair in this first episode, but will later be revealed as something much more complicated. Ali is looking for a new project, something to focus her talents on, but for now she is stuck with having written a book six years ago that no longer pays any bills, an idea for a book to be sold at the Urban Outfitter’s Checkout Line and an obsession for a fitness trainer she laid eyes on in the park. Sarah has just re-encountered Tammy, a woman that her siblings remind her she was very serious about in college, to the extent that they planned adopting children, except now she is married to Len (and has two kids) and Tammy is married, and has a child, with another woman.
Maura can’t bring herself to tell her children what she wants to tell them, so she gets there gradually and informs them that she intends to sell the family house – the very house that all of their shared memories are set in. In one of the most beautiful scenes in this episode, Josh and Ali go through the record collection together and find one that they both love (by a singer that Josh would not be able to represent, for all his stylistic shortcomings), and it is clear how much these siblings love each other, as much as they bicker, and how well they know each other, despite the fact that they so very much do not know themselves. Josh wants the house for the money, Sarah wants the house for herself (perhaps because her own home is so empty and loveless, sterile compared to this place filled with memories), Ali is financially dependent on her father. It’s a fraught issue, and the question of why Maura even wants to move out (which isn’t stated clearly, but maybe it is the place that she has been forced to hide herself in for such a long time, more a stage on which she had to perform an identity that wasn’t her own, that she just wants to move on and have a symbolic break with her pasta). Josh and Sarah leave abruptly, and only Ali sticks around (both because she still needs to ask for money and because she is someone who cares enough to stick around, which also makes her much more vulnerable than Josh and Sarah, or at least more obviously).
Maura: You know, out of all my kids, you are, you can see me most clearly. Probably because we share the depressive gene.
Ali: I’m not depressed.
Maura: Boy, it is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see.
Which is kind of what the show is about: knowing things about yourself but hiding them, not knowing yourself well enough and only existing in a costume that you don’t even realize is one, not living authentically, and both the terror and the giddy excitement of finally coming out and being able to share yourself with others. For now, Maura only has that support from a LGBTQ group, and she has to dress up to speak to her children, a performance that takes out all of her energies, that she suffers from having to put on after so many years of not having a choice. As much as the show is about her, it is also about the children – and how Maura, in spite of contributing to a childhood that was so defined by the secret lives everyone lived, knows them so very well (while all three of them are equally completely self-involved and lack any kind of self-awareness – “They are so selfish. I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.” says Maura later, during a meeting).
Ali cannot look at herself in a mirror without hating herself (and at the same time, looking for someone to push her beyond herself rather than indulging her lack of ambition and focus). Sarah cannot have a genuine conversation with her husband, because they no longer speak to each other about important things, they don’t have the time for it and they seem to have grown careless with each other, if they ever weren’t.
The first one to find out is Sarah – after taking Tammy, her college girlfriend, back to the house she grew up in, where Maura walks in on them.
I saw the original pilot rather than this one for my first viewing of the show (as far as I can tell, only the scenes in which Carrie Brownstein and Melora Hardin took over were reshot) – and was a bit saddened to find that some of the changes made in Tammy’s and Sarah’s first encounter didn’t work as well. I thought the original was much more subtle and less clunky in terms of exposition, and perhaps a bit more playful in terms of chemistry. It doesn’t bear down terribly on the rest of the season (since in a show of people who are the worst sometimes, Tammy is very often the worstest), but it was a very enjoyable scene in the original pilot that is sadly lost here. (there is some awkward exposition here that fades in subsequent episodes – the clunkiest by far might be “I AM MARRIED TO A MAN NOW”).
Also revealed a bit awkwardly – their parents got divorced when Josh was fifteen, and Maura got the house, while their mum Shelly remarried a man called Ed who is now handicapped after a stroke.
I am usually apt at reading chemistry but the Syd reveal that happens later this season took me by surprise – oddly, because it’s all there from the beginning. Syd is the kind of friend who is relentlessly supportive even when she knows that a project will fail, who will never state openly that she feels left out, who only conveys her feelings through the things that she doesn’t say, while hiding behind superficial gestures of approval (and she’s been through all of this for so many years).
Josh’s “I can’t sleep without you next to me now” is only romantic on the surface, it is in fact the first most important thing we learn about him – he cannot stand to be alone with himself, and making people love him, having a constant re-confirmation of their love, keeps him from having to confront himself.