A week after winning two Emmys, Amazon’s hit (and beloved) dramedy Transparent returns with season three today. Returning to the Pfefferman family, a white Jewish upper middle class family with three grown children (Amy Landecker’s Sarah, Jay Duplass’s Josh, and Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali) with divorced parents cisgender Shelly (Judith Light) and transgender Maura (Jeffrey Tambor). Along with confronting the subject of white privilege this season, the family returns with their ongoing struggle to be their authentic selves. Maura wants to move forward by having surgery. Sarah and Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) form a new friendship at their temple, while Raquel’s ex Josh develops feelings for Shea (Trace Lysette). Ali, now living with Josh, is pursuit her educational pursuits to be a professor, but also begins a potentially volatile relationship with her supervisor. And Shelly, now with boyfriend Buzz (Richard Masur), wants to share her story on the stage with a one woman show. At the helm of all this remains creator Jill Soloway, who won a directing Emmy Sunday and directed episodes 1, 3 and 6 this season. According to the cast, it’s understandable why Soloway has had so much success with the show.
The veterans of the main cast, Tambor and Light, were eager to be a part of the series (both claiming to have begged her to be cast). Tambor, familiar to so many for his work on TV for decades, called their read-through the best he’d ever had, and it ended without a dry eye in the house. Hoffman, a veteran from her youthful start as a child actress was aware of the project long before (planning to do something else with Soloway), and based on her previous film (the Hahn starring Afternoon Delight) and TV work, expected greatness. Hahn, who knew the experience of being directed by Soloway, called her “a gorgeous witch able to get stuff out of you.”
For Soloway, however, creating the show and writing the pilot was a personal process of healing; working through the confusion she felt when her father came out as transgender in her 70s, and now goes by Moppa (mama and papa). She explains that “When I first wrote the pilot, it came from a very personal place. I was thinking, my parent is trans, I don’t know what that means. I was afraid of telling some friends of mine. I think I knew a lot of young, cool, hipster transgender people. But I didn’t know anyone that was in their 70s and had lived their entire life in the closet. A person who had come from the secret world of cross-dressing we depicted in season one. I was writing myself out of those feelings of shame and loneliness, and giving me what everyone wishes. That when I talk about my parent, I want the safety of feeling there are other people like me, hence the Pfeffermans. I remember telling my mother-in-law the story, but I already had the pilot so I had her watch it and said that’s what’s happening.”
While the show embraces its role in the transgender community as giving a voice to a community too often hidden, Light sees the show as universal as any family series, saying “the content is universal. The show is about a transgender person, but it’s about a person being their authentic self and standing up for that.” And that includes making sure all the characters foibles are commented on. Jay, whose character of Josh received plenty of criticism over the past two years, notes the progressiveness of that comment. “No one is immune to satire or being called out. Maura, being a trans person, is not regarded as a perfect person. Of course a perfect person in the lead of a show would have been a giant step forward from being the usual prostitute or ludicrous person. But we went beyond that, because she has her own problems too. So that set the tone, so everyone that comes into the world will be embraced and made fun of.”
Duplass was also part of last year’s groundbreaking film Tangerine, which focused on a different socio-economic and racial community of the transgender community. The economic and racial difference between the Pfeffermans and less privileged members of the community (without the money for surgeries or family support) will be a fact Maura has to confront about herself in the first episode. The decision to have a first episode focus on Maura’s involvement in the trans community, rather than catch up with the family was intentional. Duplass notes that “part of what’s interesting about season three is, we’re starting to see their place within the larger community the show is set. The African American community in East LA compared to the wealthier Jewish family.” Soloway goes further to explain:
“The first episode we took a tightrope and spread it across this huge divide of class and race that exists. Sometimes in history there’s been an alignment among black people and Jewish people, sometimes there hasn’t been. For me, the big questions for Eliza and Maura is, are we more bound together because we’re both trans or are we less bound because we’re a different race? The concept of intersectionality is, do our similarities make us more alike and bonded, or do we need to pull out and separate our differences so we can truly have a movement that sees everyone? Does coming together create an eraser or power? It’s such a complicated question, but we wanted to ask that question in story, rather than stand on a panel. And that’s the dream of this show. I have all these political ambitions that make the idea of going to work feel good every day, but we have to be interrogating our privilege. It made me realize, I really can’t be telling the stories of color without having people of color writing with me. There was recently a conversation between Oprah and Ava DuVernay, asking the difference between interpretation and reflection. I’m not a woman of color, so if I’m the one telling Eliza’s story, I’m interpreting, not reflecting.”
To bridge that gap, Soloway has made a concerted effort to have a more diverse production team. For example, all the directors were either women or transgender men this season. And they’ve received attention for casting a number of transgender actors, including Alexandra Billings, who was well known for her work before the show. She explains what the show means to her at this stage in her life.
“I feel like the show has brought me a sense of trans-self. Especially being with Trace, her artistry is so great to be around and she’s so smart about it. But also because she’s from a different generation. I transitioned in 1980s, so it’s been a very, very long time. And she brings me back to a sense of my own community that I never really had before. And that wouldn’t have been possible without this show. And Jeffrey’s performance is so otherworldly. And I know we get a lot of flak because he’s cisgender, there’s a lot of animosity towards him. But because his performance is so good, I don’t think we should make a blanket rule. I’m all for opening up more roles for transgender actresses, but what I’ve learned being around this group of people, especially with Trace, is that my community has always held me and cared for them. They didn’t leave me, I left them, and it’s brought me back home.”
This season, Trace receives one of the most interesting storylines, a romantic relationship with Josh hinted at in episode three. Both Trace and Jay realize the importance of that storyline. For Trace, its significant because “the take away for me, as Shea, is getting to see a transwoman admired. Not just desired, but admired by a cisgender man. Because usually we’re fetishized or the dirty little secret. So for however long we get to see that relationship, I look forward to it.” Jay likewise knows how rare it is, stating ” “I’m not aware if this is true, but I’m told that Josh’s interest in Shea is the one time a cisgender relationship with a transgender woman isn’t being fetishized. He’s interested in her as a human being. But Trace is amazing, and the storyline is really good. Josh got beat up on a lot in the past two years, so it’s nice to see him with someone that really gets him and his family. They are both in an escapist mindset and go on a little road trip together.”
Of course the show calls attention to the fact that there’s still progress to be made. Their participation on the show has resulted in cast members becoming unlikely spokespeople for the community, something most seem to find rewarding. Alexandra, a longtime spokeswoman, calls that role “a gift, because there were times that no one cared. The fact that it’s an issue is a gift. The fact that people are becoming more interested in what we have to say is extraordinary, because my whole life has been spent in silence.” And while he’s been the subject of some controversy as a cisgender man playing a transgender woman, Tambor takes it in stride asking that it’s most important to “keep the conversation going. If it’s a difficult conversation, just keep it going. Because for too long, there hasn’t been one.”
Excerpts from Roundtables with Jill Soloway and the Transparent cast.
Transparent is now streaming season 3 on Amazon Prime.