How ‘Transparent’ became the most important new series of the year
There's a phrase that has become popular among the kids today–'in your feelings,' or 'in my feelings.' As in, 'Oh, I was just all in my feelings the other day.' It's a way of admitting to being emotional, perhaps to a fault, and humorously exposing that vulnerability, owning it to the point of empowerment.
Whether she knew she was doing this or not, Jill Soloway took this concept and created the most important television show of the year, Transparent, the first of Amazon's original series. However, it's strange to hear an acclaimed and accomplished writer (know for her previous work on Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara) talk about working from a place of seemingly pure emotion. And it's almost difficult to hear her and her co-director, Nisha Ganatra, proudly proclaim that much of this brilliant show is a result of, well, feelings.
Such talk goes against a certain privileging of intellectuality that functions as home base for critical analysis and disrupts our understanding of how this golden age of television works. And any privileging of emotions seems to go against a feminism that strives to place women on equal intellectual and economical footing as men–for how can we convince others that women are not wildly emotional creatures, thinking, analyzing, and working from their feelings if Jill Soloway and Nisha Ganatra confess to doing just that in a conversation about the most important television series of the year? We'll get to that shortly.
The co-directors, joined by Amy Landecker (who plays Sarah Pfefferman on the show), open up to Paste about how Transparent was made, and how that experience transcended anything they'd ever seen in Hollywood.
'She wanted to shoot it like no other series has been shot,' Ganatra explains. 'She's incredibly collaborative, and not afraid of anybody–not into the power dynamics.' Soloway hired Ganatra based on a 'good feeling,' and she became the only other individual to share the title of director, contributing three episodes that flow in seamlessly with the other seven. But there was such closeness between the directors, writers and actors (and so much input at every level), that those titles and labels almost seem inaccurate.
Landecker likens the process to 'some utopian TV fantasy.' As incredible as it is to watch the story of Transparent unfold, it was, apparently, just as powerful creating it.
'I went through a pretty bad depression when we stopped shooting,' Landecker admits. 'Because it was the most intense and fulfilling experience I have ever had.'
Soloway purposely surrounded herself with women, and Ganatra proudly describes all of them as 'deeply emotional artists,' herself included. And she maintains that the series is the final product of a room full of people–mostly women–who were given permission to be emotional on the job. For this, she says, Soloway is incredibly brave.
'People really shy away from that, or don't want to admit that they're working from instinct, when they are,' Ganatras says. She argues that many artists work in this way–men and women. They just don't feel comfortable saying so. 'Jill just gives you permission to say, 'I just feel this way, and that's why we're doing it.'' Behind the scenes of Transparent, emotion was the most valued commodity.
'I work in an open, intimate, collaborative way,' Soloway says, practically shrugging it off. Although the story was inspired by her own parent's coming out, she actually starts most of her work with a small idea, or an image (the family eating barbecue together was the first scene she wrote for Transparent), and asks the writers and actors to help her fill in much of the rest.
So it seems that this beautiful, succinct series–which moved so fluidly and with so much realism–was made by, well, everyone. Everyone Soloway chose to be a part of it in any way could contribute anywhere; all of which seems like the opposite of what one would do, if one were running a show. How do you hold on to your own vision, if everyone has say? If everyone's creating the piece, who is the true creator?
Luckily for us, Soloway and Ganatra didn't ask themselves such questions as they went about making Season One. As a result, they brought us the incredible story of the Pfefferman clan, at the head of which is Maura, formerly known as Mort (played by the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor). After being outed by her eldest daughter (Landecker), Maura explains that she has spent her entire life dressing up like a man. The series follows her as she transitions into life as a woman, under the gaze of her three adult children–Sarah, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and Josh (Jay Duplass)–all of whom are experiencing their own physical and emotional transitions.
With an amazing score, bizarre yet identifiable characters, and an incredible storyline, Transparent takes on the institutions of marriage and sexuality, death, race, sex abuse, class, feminism and religion (in just 10 episodes), in the best and most entertaining way possible–with comedy. The very premise of the series–a man in his late 60s, coming out–lends itself to humor. But Soloway confesses that early on in the writing process, another key element was missing from her show.
'The show was funny, and it was also kind of sexy, and it was emotional,' she says of those first scripts. 'But we realized that the missing thing flowing through everything was spirituality.' Soloway, who laughingly admits to 'a pretty hodge-podge, made-up belief in God,' sees herself as vessel more than a director, and once she allowed the underlying spirituality of her story to flow freely, religion–Pfefferman-style–became a major component of the narrative. Dubbed (lovingly) by one publication as the Jewiest show ever, it's significant that Soloway shares her position of director (or vessel) with Nisha Ganatra.
'I'm a deeply spiritual person,' Ganatra says. 'Even though I'm of the Hindu faith, and she's Jewish, there's so much overlap. It was something we knew without saying to each other.' Ganatra believes that this is why there's an energy over the whole project that 'comes across naturally in the scenes.' And along with that energy, religious doctrine and dogma–in all its comedy and glory–are written heavily into the script.
'The show is about God,' Soloway offers. 'I think the show is about the soul, and the search for the self in the understanding of the soul. There's a yearning for soulfulness, and a yearning for meaning through the prism of family.'
The Shabbat dinner scene is one place where all of these elements come together under the umbrella of Judaism. Landecker says the scene is one of her favorites. 'It had it all–family, love, friendship, conflict, absurdity.'
Her estranged husband Len shows up to get the kids, and, upon seeing Maura–not Mort–for the first time, he completely loses it, and poses a few questions to Sarah, her lover Tammy, Maura, and Maura's friend, another trans woman Davina:
'Would you ladies be more comfortable if you lived on an all-female planet? Maybe you could sail off in a uterus-shaped spaceship. Maybe I could cut my dick off!'
In this scene, Len is, suffice it to say, all in his feelings. But Landecker's correct–it's not just funny; it's a scene that has everything. Religious tradition is both embraced and subverted, as Sarah celebrates the day of rest with her lover (who is not Jewish) and her transitioning parent.
'When Sarah says 'It's a tradition for the mother of the house to light the candles,' and hands the matches to Maura, I think that is such a beautiful moment of progress and tradition,' Landecker says. 'The show is firmly planted in the past, and the future–and it shows how the two can coexist.' The series accomplishes all this without playing like a show meant for people of the Jewish faith, or people of any faith in particular–which, in and of itself, is a small miracle.
In Transparent sexual identity loses its 'statehood' and becomes fluid, treated like an ongoing process with its own ebbs and flows. Many of the characters reflect this in some way, but Sarah Pfefferman is probably the strongest example.
At the start of the series Sarah is a stay-at-home mom buried in bento boxes and private school playdates. She soon leaves her husband for her college girlfriend, Tammy (who is also married, but to another woman). When her 'lesbian' relationship eventually begins to experience problems similar to those in her marriage to Len, she finds herself back in the arms of her husband. Whether she is gay, straight or bisexual is the least interesting question here. The series demands greater questions.
'[Jill and I] never did define her [sexuality],' Landecker says. 'Sarah is so great because she represents a continuum of love and sexuality, and as we explore LGBTQ issues within the show and within the community, we become more aware that binary thinking is a great pitfall for humanity. It's too limiting and disregards our potential for many shades of grey.' Landecker goes on to say that all of Jill's characters are complicated in this way–especially the women.
Soloway points out that Sarah's is a story of escape–not escape of the straight life, gay life, or any life with a specific sexual identity attached to it. Instead, it's an escape from what had become her unfulfilling norm.
If Sarah Pfefferman represents a subversion of our expectations of sexuality and sexual identity, Kathryn Hahn's Raquel Fein represents a subversion of our expectations for the sexuality–and overall personality–of a religious leader. Hahn (described by Landecker as ' one of the greatest actresses I know') starred in Soloway's directorial debut Afternoon Delight, and the director knew she wanted her to play a significant role in Transparent. As Rabbi Raquel and love interest of Duplass' Josh Pfefferman, she often steals the show. In one of her early scenes she gives a moving sermon, breaking down the books of Genesis and Exodus, and explaining that those Jews who were in bondage may have escaped, but never make it to the other side. She brings out the tragedy in the story of the Promised Land. Shortly thereafter, we see her joking with Josh about being a single woman who suffers from 'crunchy, crispy eggs' (she thinks she may have missed the baby boat), and then shortly after that, we see her making messy, beautiful love to him. Any of our preconceived notions about what rabbis do in their spare time is suddenly and wonderfully complicated.
'It's a really fun way to invert people's expectations of certain figures.' Because of Raquel, we can now envision a rabbi as a lover, as a friend, and as a flawed human being. And her presence in Transparent is another representation of a necessary collapsing of oppositions–sex, spirituality, tragedy, comedy–it's all there (even in that single character), an apt, appropriate reflection of real life for many of us.
Transparent is the most important series of 2014 because–even as it exists alongside shows like The Good Wife, Scandal, and other series actively participating in the feminist movement–it takes all of these messages further by shaking up the rigidly defined structures upon which we've all depended for so long. In Tambor's Maura, 'male' and 'female' are shaken up (as a result, so are 'mother' and 'father'), and in the very presentation of the series–this collaborative project where actors also took on writer and directorial duties (and Soloway even made a cameo, as the unforgettable professor in Ali's Gender Theory course), no one position is easily defined. In the closing scene of the finale, we also see Judaism and Christianity coming together, as a character named Colton says a final prayer.
'The last line of the season was going to be [Colton's], 'In Jesus name we pray,'' Soloway explains. When Tambor improvised with 'Oy gevalt,' that became the last line–but the message still stood. 'We knew it would have that shape,' she says. 'Opening up from Judaism, from the Old Testament, into religion as a whole.'
Tambor's penchant for improv led to another great moment in the series. He's learning to sit in a more feminine manner, when his friend Davina scolds him for letting it all hang out. 'Your male privilege is leaking all over the place,' she says. And when Maura tries to work that femininity into her walk, she eventually gets fed up–and walks right out of the 'lesson.' Ganatra laughs as she recalls shooting that scene and says that it was never in the original script.
'He's going from being a very confident and competent man in the world, to going back to learning everything, like a child,' she says. 'So he just walks right out!'
And it's a great image to associate with the feminist movement. Training for womanhood, if only to abandon the notion altogether–but doing so with a splash (or more) of comedy.
'It's important for feminism to have a sense of humor, and look at all the silliness that comes from people really wanting women to argue with each other, instead of focusing on changing, and growing, and bringing forth the revolution,' Soloway says.
And such humor is the backbone of her series, which has been picked for a second season, and will see Ganatra and Soloway back in the directors' seats (while Josh Pfefferman may be moving into the family house).
Landecker says we should all brace ourselves for impact, as she has high hopes for the series.
'I want it to save lives. I actually think it will. I want the world to get comfortable with the transgender community.'
Even as Transparent goes on to change lives and the world (for there's no doubt that it can) we suspect that the people behind this amazing show will continue to operate from their emotional spaces–that they will enact such change by continuing to work, create, and stay all the way in their feelings.
This essay first appeared in Paste. Reprinted with permission.