In the pilot of Transparent, Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman rhetorically asks her support group, “how did I raise three such selfish kids?”
Given that his character is fresh off a failed attempt to quell her three adult children’s bickering and come out to them as a transgender woman at age 68, it’s easy to feel sympathetic toward Maura (formerly known as Mort). After all, who can imagine what it must be like to live a nearly full life of anxiety and lies until finally deciding to live honestly, only to struggle to get a word in at a very loud Jewish family dinner?
As we’re exposed to these characters for the first time, indeed it does appear as Maura’s kids — Sarah, Josh, and Ali, in order of oldest to youngest — are too preoccupied with their comparatively trivial concerns to give their ailing father a second to speak his mind. Maura, dressed as the man they’ve known their whole lives, diverts their attention away from her clear mental frustration by saying she plans to sell the family house, and immediately they jump into an argument over who of them deserves to inherit the deed.
How our sympathies shift as the show’s first season progresses and we learn more about Maura’s past and each character’s own internal struggles is what elevates Transparent from a good to a great show. Jill Soloway, known for her work as a producer on Six Feet Under, navigates a story full of intimate sibling dynamics and difficulties with sexual identity that ultimately reveals each member of the Pfeffermans as complex, broken, and ultimately very selfish — Maura included.
Sarah, the oldest of the three “children” (who is well into her forties), begins the show married to a man with two kids of her own. After a run-in with an old lesbian college flame she ditches her little-boxes life to pursue one of passion, moving into the recently vacated family home with Jan from The Office.
That’s all good and fine until later when she starts doubting her radical move and cozying back up to her ex-husband, Len, who rightfully refuses a laundry room blowjob from her out of respect for himself. Sure, Sarah’s confused and potentially in the throes of a midlife crisis, so yeah, a little infidelity (especially in the context of a TV show) is in theory prone to happen. Beyond how selfish this is on the surface though, the way she twice quickly turns against her then-lover on a dime clearly surfaces from deep within as a reflexive, self-damaging response to discomfort.
Next in line is Josh, who takes Maura’s transition the hardest. This is initially understandable given that he’s the only son — suddenly having your father, the only other male in your immediate family, come out as a woman late in life most likely would screw with your psyche just a bit. This isn’t to say that the same revelation is normal for sisters Sarah and Ali, but those two are able to discuss and process it together, accepting it fairly early on.
As we learn more about Josh’s upbringing, notably his long-running affair with his babysitter that started at age 15 and was allowed by his parents, we begin to feel sorry for him. He’s self-obsessed, arguably a sex addict (a “love addict,” even), and initially thinks his dad’s transition is a joke. By all accounts, he’s a total asshole. But Soloway and her writing staff expertly make us understand that due to his spoiled and strange childhood, he’s actually quite the sympathetic character. How could he have turned out any different?
Finally, that brings us to Ali. She’s an interesting case, because as the baby of the family and already a lost soul in “real life,” she cuts through her family’s bullshit quicker than anyone. In a conversation between the whole immediate family at her mother’s as to how they plan to euthanize her second husband, Ed, Ali can’t even sit through their “justified” morbidity.
Ali’s free-spirited, no-direction character could easily slip into a cliché, but because Transparent is interested in exploring real human insecurities and issues, this never happens. She’s just as tormented and confused as her siblings, but without the veil of a steady job or cookie cutter family to obscure that fact. So why is she so fucked up? Well, her parents let her cancel her own bat-mitzvah at age 13 because she didn’t want to do it. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but it’s an important point the show uses to demonstrate what sort of home the Pfefferman kids grew up in.
As it turns out, the day in 1994 when Ali was to be called to the Torah landed on the weekend of an annual retreat for crossdressing men to get away and be who they really are for two days. Realizing this conflict in the flashback, Mort laments, “Oh, it’s my daughter’s fucking bat-mitzvah. Goddamnit.” He then proceeds to feed her doubt about Judaism by telling her he sometimes has trouble believing in God.
That line is hilarious, but also incredibly sad, which is really Transparent as a whole. All at once, Mort is crestfallen at potentially missing out on a brief chance to be his true self, while also lashing out in an intensely selfish fashion. This prompts the viewer to have a mixed reaction: we tend to loathe selfish, damaging characters, but we sympathize with those that simply want to satisfy their deepest, most honest desires. What do we do with a character that is both?
The answer is simply to just let it happen. Individually, everyone in the Pfefferman family is just like Maura — selfish and relatively narrow-minded, but also dealing with serious internal issues. And on some level, so is everyone out there IRL. Transparent smartly doesn’t try to wrap a neat bow around its rising and falling conflicts. Even without a storyline centered around the sensitive and underrepresented subject of transgender issues, the show would still be an in-depth exploration of flawed people and the gray areas they wade circles within. That Transparent uses its gender-bending hook to discuss much more, as opposed to shoving it down viewers’ throats, is a true achievement.
So how did you raise three such selfish kids, Maura? Well, the answer is easy. But we don’t blame you for it.