Once upon a time last season, Amazon Prime’s revolutionary Transparent was on track to becoming one of the greatest shows of its era. Heartache has never felt so funny, refreshing, and warm, until showrunner Jill Soloway came along with a show that was progressive, but not preachy or self-important. In fact, it felt real. Real, in the sense, that her characters felt like real people, and did not just embody whatever agenda the show wanted to push forward into the real world.
Years from now, we’re going to talk about how Transparent was one of the forerunners of transgender storytelling, but that was not really the heart and soul of the show. Like all great shows about important things, it didn’t care about connecting the sociopolitical dots for its audience; instead, it wanted to tell a story about family.
Then, season two came along, right near the end of 2015, the year of Caitlyn Jenner and The Danish Girl. And lo and behold, we have, in season two, perhaps the most try-hard, self-important show to ever exist. And maybe–just maybe–it’s on its way to becoming the most intolerable show of its era. But what a shame, it was once so truly great.
What’s so frustrating about season two is not that most of the characters become full-blown narcissists–we always sort of knew they were–but it’s really the season-long narrative itself, which is sort of coalesced with flashbacks to 1933 Berlin.
The problem is two-fold, meaning that Soloway & Co. wanted us to accept two very specific premises, just because. And they had so much faith that we would accept their premises and be moved by it, that they had the audacity to write it and film it.
Please don’t read beyond this point if you don’t want any Transparent season two spoilers.
Early on in season two, Maura (played by the wonderful Jeffrey Tambor, one of the only reasons to watch this season) mentions that his estranged mother, Rose, has not seen her as a woman. Maura is hesitant about what her mother might think about her transition. Oh, but the show begs us not to worry, as we flash back to 1933 Berlin, where Rose was a young Jewish girl, who was close with her trans sister Gittel, and often attended events thrown by Gittel’s friends in the 1933 LGBT community.
As the Nazis stampede into the LGBT community, they also violently pull Gittel away from Rose. Flash forward to 2015, and Rose, unable to speak, meets Maura for the first time. And we know, because of the flashbacks, that Rose definitely accepts Maura, despite the silence, as she once loved a sister, who was also born a boy.
I acknowledge that there are several ways to unravel the Rose/Maura/Gittel connections, and many people have, and they’ve found beauty and have been moved, but what all this build up essentially leads up to is, “Rose accepts Maura as a woman.” That’s it. All that hurrah to convey something very, very simple. You’re free to be moved by this, but I don’t care for narratives that go leaps and bounds to say something so rudimentary; at that point, the narrative becomes mechanical, rather than fluid and natural.
One of the last scenes, which certainly dots the i’s and crosses the t’s for all of us, is another flashback scene. Rose is at the hospital, giving birth. In the waiting room, Rose’s husband tells Rose’s mother that his instinct tells him that it’s going to be a girl. Yet, the doctors tell Rose that it’s a boy. Because get it? Maura’s father’s instinct always knew that Maura was a woman, so Maura was always meant to be a woman, but she was just born a boy, and she–
We’re done for here. All the exposition is on the verge of being extremely silly, but I feel like we’re supposed to be okay with it, en masse, because all of this is being done on an important show, with an important subject matter. All of this narrative pretentiousness is not just okay, but is considered moving, beautiful, insightful, symbolic, when it’s actually an extremely calculated narrative.
The show has an answer as to why the Pfeffermans continue to devolve into more despicable human beings: inherited trauma. I mean, this show is actually trying to tie in the characters’ narcissism and sexual dysfunctions with their so-called inherited trauma–trauma from what, exactly? Rose’s trauma during Nazi occupation of Germany, where she had her sister violently pulled away from her, and shortly after, found her father in L.A., not waiting for her and her mother, but re-married to another woman and with a new baby?
Wait, is this show trying to imply that a few spoiled Angeleno brats are the way they are because they’ve inherited the traumas of their ancestors circa Nazi Germany? I HOPE NOT. Yet, I feel like there’s certainly at least an implication of that in there, especially with Ali’s character (Gaby Hoffmann, who continues to be quite good), who not only discovers the idea of inherited trauma, but seems to deeply connect with Rose. So are her selfish lesbian exploits and general rich girl mental instability due to her having inherited trauma from her grandmother’s actually horrible wartime experiences?
Sure, you can tell me I’m misreading this, or I’m over-simplifying this, but I actually think the show is over-simplifying the idea of inherited trauma, by forcing it into a vehicle for sympathy. I actually believe that the show is trying to create poetry out of this, where there is none. And frankly, I actually find this kind of narrative really manipulative and kind of insulting.
Not to say that there isn’t a lot of insight going on in season two. The show does have some powerful things to say about the socioeconomic disparity between the upper middle-class Pfeffermans and the rest of the world, and how that socioeconomic disparity is magnified if you identify as trans, as you’ve sort of solidified yourself as even more of an outsider. Part of Transparent’s evaluation of this disparity is undeniably preachy, but that doesn’t make it less real.
I certainly don’t think Transparent is at a point of no return. Despite all my reservations about its narrative hangups, I still think it’s an interesting show. It’s never boring, it always has something to say, and can be interpreted in many different ways. There’s something to be said about a show that provokes a reaction–any reaction–from its audience, and that, I can appreciate.