Amazon's Transparent Is Great Television in Transition

Amazon's Transparent Is Great Television in Transition

When Soloway talks about the transgender moment we’re seeing in popular culture or extolling the virtues of Tambor in the role, she talks like a queer person herself. “Queer” and “trans” are words she uses frequently to describe “us,” and when I mention what TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) stands for and how great it is to meet a self-described radical feminist who is openly trans-inclusive, she creates a new moniker for herself — and by extension others like her: “I should be a TARF, a trans-allied radical feminist.”

Her sister, lesbian musician and screenwriter Faith Soloway, left Hollywood years ago but she returned this year to help Jill with crafting Transparent. Besides Faith, Soloway has “so many friends who are queer and so many friends who are trans that it just always seemed obvious to me what an incredible metaphor being trans is… for all kinds of transformation, all kinds of transcendence, all kinds of change. And the big question, I think, that we’re asking with this show is, Will you still love me if? Will you still be there if? It just feels like sort of the right question for a family drama and the right time for it.”

In addition to bringing on board her sister and a number of high profile queer and trans artists (including filmmaker Andrea Sperling, author Ali Liebegott, actress Alexandra Billings, comedian Ian Harvie, and musician D’lo), Soloway recognized a kindered spirit in Ernst. The two met at Sundance years ago; he had a film playing the same year. They kept in touch and later Soloway asked he and Drucker to collaborate on the show.

“Jill kind of opened the door and led the way. She’s completely dedicated to getting this right,” Ernst says. “Zackary and I have connected a lot of people from the community to the show. There are about 12 speaking roles that are played by trans actors. We have a ‘transfirmative’ action initiative that we created, so we’ve been getting trans people hired in as many departments as possible. We have [LGBT] people behind the camera. We have gender-neutral bathrooms at our offices at Paramount.”

Soloway butts in, with a smile: “That’s causing all kinds of trouble. It’s really interesting to see what happens when we try to subvert the order.”

“We’re bucking the system,” Ernst says, “but it’s becoming a teachable moment. I think it’s a really important top-down, comprehensive approach to how to get trans and queer topics right in a big operation like this, which is not just answering one question of casting. [This show’s] setting a precedent by hiring queer and trans people all the way through the production, doing info sessions consistently throughout, from the beginning to the end, and educating all the different kinds of people on the production.”

Right now at least 20 percent of the crew is LGBT (perhaps more), and informational sessions are conducted during production. Ernst says their info sessions are like a Trans 101 course. The day before I visited the set, they spoke to the cast about trans history and current trans political issues, “giving them the whole backdrop so the have this whole kind of world they can hold on. It’s not just a one liner or something like that.”

“Rhys and Zachary also talked to the crew leading up to the production meeting,” Soloway brags. “They’ll sometimes start it off with, ‘Go ahead. Let’s ask all the stupid questions. Let’s get them out.’ Just trying to make sure that there is as little otherizing as possible.”

It’s a rare TV series where the showrunner and her advisors talk about dismantling the system and creating what Ernst calls “gender freedom for everybody,” but these two do. 

“I think it is bringing up all this questions for people, he says. “It’s kind of profound. I get a lot of follow-up questions from people in the crew who are like, ‘I’ve been telling my friends and community about this and they’re just so fascinated. Can I take some of the literature and show my friends and family?’ It’s having this incredible ripple effect.”

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Transparent’s appeal has a lot to do with the show’s family dimension. Maura’s ex-wife is played by Judith Light (above left), an accomplished actress and longtime LGBT activist, and her youngest daughter is played by the outstanding Gaby Hoffmann (above right).

Indeed, I expect the TV show itself will have a ripple effect, in part because while it’s Maura’s journey, she’s not the only likeable character. Each of her kids present you with multiple layers, different personalities, and nuanced emotions to where you may identify with one or all of them at any given time. In that way, it’s like the 1970s series Family (which coincidentally featured two not-yet-out lesbian actresses, Kristy McNichol and Meredith Baxter).

“What was very interesting to me was, I don’t know a family that can’t relate to this in terms of one person in the family goes through a change and everybody else has to change around that,” Tambor says. “That to me is very powerful, very modern, and very, very beautiful."

Tambor was particularly excited about the show’s family appeal: “There’s a scene in the pilot that I always hearken to for inspiration, where we’re all sitting around the table and everybody has their own agony of what they can’t quite express.” In it, Maura stumblingly tries, but fails, to come out to her children, but while she’s attempting, they assume their father is trying to reveal a cancer diagnosis. Maura defaults reluctantly to the closet, and instead announces she’s selling the family home.

Soloway says her aspirations are for Transparent to resonate first as a family series, and indeed there are nods to some of the classics, but with more Jewish characters — and some of those characters feel a bit like the Soloway sisters themselves.

“What it feels like when you watch it is sort of a family show like Thirtysomething or even, dare we all say it, All in the Family or The Cosby Show,” Soloway says. “I think both Faith and I can be found in all three kids regardless of their gender,” Soloway says of her sister Faith Soloway, an out folksinger and comedian, who returned to Hollywood to collaborate with Jill on Transparent as a writer. “We really want to experiment with what it means to have an emotional, social, and potentially spiritual legacy with gender queerness in your family. What would happen if we got to watch these three kids wrestle with the question of their own gender identity?”

The actors and Soloway have been quick to say this show could not have been made with a traditional network. Hoffmann told reporters at the show’s Television Critics Associa- tion panel in July that the idea that the actors are making a sacrifice of a kind to work for Amazon is dead wrong: “This is a privilege, working with Joe and Amazon,” she said, referring to Joe Lewis, Amazon Studios’ head of original programming. “They are our allies and supporters and cheerleaders. They’re letting this show be what we want it to be and need it to be.”

It’s clear that Soloway, Tambor, Ernst and Drucker, and the whole cast and crew aren’t settling for anything less than revolution with this show. Plenty of people on the set are hoping for a miracle in Transparent, and maybe after this year — the significant buzz over the pilot, the Time magazine “tipping point” cover with Laverne Cox, the huge embrace of transgender kids on YouTube — perhaps they’ll have it. There’s something almost magical on the set, a sense of camaraderie and change, like a 1970s women’s music festival where the lesbian folk musicians think they can change the world with their songs.

“My hope is that the show is going to be so emotionally, spiritually, sexually revolutionary that you won’t just watch it once,” Soloway says, chuckling after saying “revolutionary” for perhaps the 15th time in under two hours. “I want people to be laughing, I want them to be crying, and I want them to be turned on. I want them to have all three of those happening simultaneously. Maybe the show can do something that hasn’t been done before.”

Call me crazy, but I honestly think it can. I left the set feeling sad, hopeful, and yes, a little aroused — by Soloway’s sexual revolution talk, by Maura’s feminine grace, by the queer energy of the set — and I can kind of hear Joan Baez and a round of “Kumbaya” ringing in my ears.

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