A new television series with potential to reshape portrayals of trans characters for years to come might never get past its first episode -- unless viewers pledge to support it.
Amazon announced plans last fall to release several pilots, using viewer feedback to determine which shows get picked for additional episodes. A first trial resulted in two new series: Alpha House, a political sitcom starring John Goodman, and Betas, another sitcom, which follows the lives of Silicon Valley coders.
The latest batch of pilots includes a dramatic comedy from writer-director-producer Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under, The United States of Tara) that is poised to break new ground in fictional depictions of LGB -- and most notably T -- characters on television.
Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as the titular character, Maura, a trans woman coming out late in life and trying to share her authentic self with her dysfunctional family, including her selfish children and ex-wife. Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and Judith Light costar in the earnest and surprisingly sympathetic pilot, which includes gay and lesbian storylines in addition to the central plot.
The pilot, now available for free screening and review through the end of February on Amazon.com, introduces viewers to Tambor's Maura, known to the family as Mort. Tambor spends the better part of the pilot trying to tell the children the news, turning in a surprisingly nuanced performance expressing some of the struggles trans people face during the early parts of transition.
"Even though the show has the word 'trans' in the title, I don't necessarily want people to look at it as the definitive show about a trans person," Soloway tells The Advocate. "For me, the show is more of an exploration of family, much in the same way Six Feet Under was about a family's relationship to death. The show was inspired by the idea of rather [than] being about a parent dying in the first scene, which is what Six Feet Under was about, would instead be about a parent being born in the first scene. What would it mean to children who were expecting to inherit a legacy of money or real estate to instead inherit a legacy of 'genderqueerness'? To me, the show is really about a queer family, and within the queer family, there's the father who is coming out as transgender."
For trans people, activists, and allies, finding out that a show or movie plans to introduce a trans character can feel like playing Russian Roulette. Two and Half Menearned praise for an episode last year that had main character Alan finding a transgender love interest. But normally the best possible outcome is one that doesn't do any direct, permanent harm to the public's already shoddy understanding of trans issues. Too often, the character's sole purpose is to be a target for ridicule or to be used as a "shocking" twist ending.
Even when gay or lesbian showrunners are involved, trans storylines can lack tact and perpetuate dangerous, misinformed stereotypes about what it means to be a trans person. Take Ryan Murphy's Nip/Tuck, for example. At the close of the second season in 2004, viewers learn that Ava Moore, played by Famke Janssen, is transgender. Trans activists complained of numerous harmful parts of the episode, including a backstory for Moore that claims she was a gay man who transitioned solely to "trick" straight men into dating her. The next season, another transgender character is introduced and brutally beaten by a member of the main cast, who never faces legal consequences, though a group of the victim's friends do exact physical revenge on the assailant. The regularly featured character is ashamed to admit to family and doctors that he was beaten up by a group of women, to whom the cast refers using slurs.
As trans people aren't often given a public voice, such commonplace storylines damage the public's already skewed perception. Although these representations are fictional, they can be the only vestige of trans identities encountered by the average viewer.
The fictional world can cause lasting harm by perpetuating falsehoods that depict all trans women as really just "super gay" men or by painting violence as a reasonable response to discovering that someone you're attracted to is transgender.
Soloway hopes to steer clear of those tropes. "We've had trans people involved in the process all the way through," she says of developing Transparent. "We've consulted with places like GLAAD and some of the larger [LGBT advocacy] groups," she adds, noting that GLAAD's first trans board member, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and academic and trans activist Zackary Drucker were both directly involved in the pilot. (Drucker has a brief cameo in the pilot.)
"To be completely honest, I've had an unbelievable education way beyond what I already thought I knew -- which was a lot -- six months ago," explains Soloway. "I'm so inspired by taking all of the aspects of the conversation and being able to treat them with the fullness of having a series set around these questions. I don't even think most American people would be able to explain the difference between what they would call a cross-dresser and a trans woman -- somebody who has socially transitioned or medically transitioned."
Soloway addresses head-on the critique that she cast a cisgender (nontrans) actor to play the show's main character.
"It's a line to walk," she acknowledges of enlisting Tambor to portray Maura. "But I feel like it's a bit of a safe space for the reality that a lot of older trans women don't necessarily medically transition. I think there's a story we can tell here. ... For Maura's journey and where she's going to go, particularly at her age -- whether or not she's going to medically transition is something we can play with."
Soloway says that she's "grateful for the amount of goodwill that has come from the trans community," thus far. She also confirms that she plans to introduce a number of trans characters, played by trans actors, taking on diverse storylines as the series develops.
If it gets the chance, and if executed as outlined, Transparent could have a lasting impact on not only how viewers of this show come to understand trans people, but it may also send a message to other writers, directors, and producers, helping to shape their own trans storylines.
Watch a clip from Transparent below or view the full episode at Amazon.com. After watching, rate the episode and register your comments about the show here through February 28. At that point, Amazon officials will use feedback from users on this pilot and four others (Mozart in the Jungle, The Rebels, The After, and Bosch) to determine which show will be green-lit for a full season to be featured on Amazon Prime Instant Video.