Transparent Was Nominated As A ’Comedy’ At The Golden Globes. Why?
'Transparent' is heartbreaking, exhausting, masterful television. But a comedy?
This article contains spoilers up to the end of Season Two of Amazon’s Transparent, as well as up to the end of Season Three of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.
At this week’s Golden Globes – America’s drunkest celeb hang – there were, as always, a few upsets, most notably the domination of Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle in the TV Comedy or Musical category. The low-key show was a surprise winner, taking out the Best Series award over buzzier and more pedigreed comedies: HBO’s Silicon Valley and Veep, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon’s Transparent. (And Hulu’s Casual, which is not at all buzzy or pedigreed.)
Especially surprising: that Jill Soloway’s iridescent Transparent, last year’s Best Comedy winner, was snubbed by the Globes in favour of a show about classical music where Gael Garcia Bernal has a rat’s tail.
Transparent’s second season, which dropped on Stan at the end of 2015, is a striking piece of televisual art, and yet it’s been left out in the cold in favour of an indisputably inferior show. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Mozart in the Jungle as much as the next former string player, but it is not an award-winning series.)
But perhaps it’s fitting that Transparent has not won ‘Best Comedy’ this year. If Transparent’s second season is a comedy, it’s a tragicomedy. And, really, it’s just a straight-up tragedy (with the occasional funny bit). The series deserves to win awards, but in its true category: as a bonafide half-hour drama.
What Is A ‘TV Comedy’, Exactly?
As ‘prestige’ television outstrips network TV in terms of public chatter and critical acclaim, the rules for what makes a series a ‘drama’ or a ‘comedy’ are becoming blurrier.
Formally inventive TV has found its home on American cable and the streaming services. A series like Louie, comedian Louis C.K’s surreal sitcom, might not fit on network television, but on FX, a niche cable network specialising in stunted thinking men’s comedies like the brilliantly nihilistic Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it works. Perhaps Master of None, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s hipster rom-com, could be a network show, but it would probably look very different to how it looks on Netflix (as Ansari and Yang proved in the show’s shrewd fourth episode, ‘Indians on TV’).
On cable and streaming services, creators can stretch the boundaries of what television looks and feels like – something that the networks can’t always pull off. If you want proof, look at NBC’s limited run and poor ratings for Bryan Fuller’s masterful Hannibal, a show that was often too wild and weird to be considered TV at all, and which suffered on a platform that couldn’t cater to its niche audience.
Now that the TV world is expanding, the rules are changing. Comedies aren’t just brilliant and bright and broadly appealing, with multi-cams and canned laughter; sometimes they’re deeply debilitating half-hour torture experiments with jokes, like Always Sunny or Bojack Horseman, two intensely funny depressing comedies. In the second season of FX’s sitcom You’re The Worst, publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash) struggles with depression in a harrowing season-long arc, the apex of which is Gretchen trudging down the street, sobbing silently, while her boyfriend ambles beside her, chatting, oblivious. Chilling stuff for a show that features characters called Shitstain and Honey Nuts.
And dramas aren’t always police procedurals and histrionic hour-long affairs; sometimes they’re small and quiet and funny, and just half-an-hour long, like HBO’s singular, sublime (and criminally underwatched) Looking, or Transparent. These shows are far too expansive and emotionally intense to be comedies, and though they are often funny, they are structured as bite-sized dramatic works.
Take a closer look at those Globes ‘comedy’ contenders. It’s right that Veep and Silicon Valley are considered comedies, with mile-a-minute gags and goofs, they’re trussed-up versions of the humble workplace comedy. But Orange is the New Black? The Netflix series has moments of humour (‘The Chickening’!), but it’s also a show that has ended its past three seasons with a brutal beating, a hit-and-run and an attempted suicide, respectively.
Transparent, too, is a fairly dubious ‘comedy’. The series, created by Jill Soloway, follows the transition of Mort Pfefferman (a thoughtful, earthy Jeffrey Tambor) to Maura, the trans woman she always knew she was. When Maura comes out to her family, daughters Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman), son Josh (Jay Duplass) and ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light), they are propelled into emotional transitions of their own.
Amid the compelling exploration of a trans experience, Transparent’s second season features scarring break-ups, a miscarriage and the Holocaust. At times it is so far from being a comedy it makes Ridley Scott’s The Martian (the puzzling winner of the Globes’ Best Film, Comedy or Musical gong) look like The Hangover.
Transparent’s Devastating Second Series
Sarah Pfefferman is looking a little worse for wear in Transparent season two. In a previous episode she backed out of her expensive white wedding to Tammy (the excellent Melora Hardin) midway through the reception. Nevertheless, Sarah is enjoying her brother’s pretentious LA pool party when Tammy, drunk and scrappy, crashes the fun.
The rest of the Pfefferman clan watch in horror – variously trying to ‘help’ control the embarrassing situation, which is, of course, being filmed on smart phones by the other party attendants – as a distraught Tammy confronts Sarah. “You have ruined my life,” Tammy screams, brandishing the stale wedding cake Sarah put out as party food. “You think there’s no fucking consequence. I am a fucking consequence.”
If there’s a thesis statement for Transparent, that line is probably it. The Pfeffermans, a self-involved clan of Jewish hipsters, take Maura’s transition as a signal to live by the ethos: “I have to do what’s right for me”. These Id-ruled choices are sometimes right, like Maura’s expression of her true gender identity, and often they’re less right, like Josh’s reluctance to buy his pregnant fiancée, rabbi Raquel (the inimitable, underrated Kathryn Hahn), a wedding ring, despite frequent protestations that it’s “on his list”.
One thing’s for certain: these are always choices made at the expense of others. Everybody associated with the Pfeffermens is a consequence of the family’s singular self-determination.
Transparent has never shied away from so-called ‘unlikeability’ in its characters; the Pfeffermans are, at various stages, terrible people (or, as Tammy puts it, “monsters”). They are spiritual cousins to the Fishers, the abominable family (who are nevertheless compulsively watchable and variously sympathetic) at the centre of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under (on which Soloway worked as a co-executive producer).
But Soloway, in her infinite wisdom and dexterity, presents the Pfeffermans’ various flaws without judgement. Their selfish, sometimes cruel behaviour is not a condemnation; it’s just a fact of life.
Eventually Raquel gets sick of waiting for Josh to buy her a ring, so she buys one for him and attempts a romantic proposal in their living room. Josh is horrified, and he interrupts her, spitting, “You don’t trust me!” Raquel, whose face taughtens and dampens every episode, breaks down. “I just wanted to take something off your list,” she sobs.
It’s a cruel moment, one of the many where Josh, whose toxic machismo overwhelms as he struggles to assert himself as the last cisgendered Pfefferman man, comes off badly. But although his callousness looks bad, he is not a villain. However, there are consequences, the most significant of which is his loss of Raquel after she miscarries and Josh fails to provide her with adequate emotional support.
Later, Josh finds an injured duck on the grounds of his mother’s condo complex, where he is walking with his mother’s new beau, the genial Buzzy. Buzzy asks Josh to hold out his jacket, and he deposits the quivering bird into Josh’s arms. Duplass’s face crumples in terror at the prospect of holding a living thing, of being responsible. In that moment, you feel for Josh. Soloway implores you to understand, and forgive, his bad behaviour, rooted in his confused understanding and fear of patriarchal ‘family man’ pressures.
Redefining Comedy And Tragedy In The New TV Age
If none of this sounds very comedic, it’s because it isn’t. Even funny scenarios are soured by the Pfeffermans’ blockheaded reactions to life’s complications.
Sarah, Ali and Maura make a pilgrimage to Idylwyld (a fictionalised Michigan Womyn’s Festival) beginning with Indigo Girls sing-alongs and some freewheeling, expressive nudity. (Like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Soloway relishes in the most radical nudity on television; the naked bodies of women, all sizes and shapes and ages, are presented to be celebrated, not leered at.)
The experience turns south when the Pfefferman women discover that Idylwyld has a ‘womyn born womyn’ policy, which excludes Maura from attending. Maura, desperately uncomfortable, implores Ali to take her home, and Ali refuses, choosing instead to indulge in the titillation that Idylwyld and a lesbian poet, Leslie, offer her. An injured Maura regresses to tantrum mode, leaving the Idylwyld site kicking and screaming “man on the lam!”
Interwoven through this season is the story of the Pfefferman ancestors, German Jews with a trans daughter (the effervescent Hari Nef) who fled to America to escape persecution from the Nazis. While Maura kicks down tents at Idylwyld, the Pfefferman ancestors, in another forest in another time, watch as their books are burned and their friends are assaulted by Nazi thugs. The compelling thread is presented as spectral flashbacks that grip Ali and encourage her to explore her Jewishness and her family’s queer legacy.
Transparent is sometimes a distressing experience. I wept first when Tammy confronted Sarah at the pool party, and then periodically throughout the season. I also laughed when Maura was taught to say “Yass queen” by her friends Divina and Shea. I chuckled at Shelly’s stories of condo committee politics (one of the show’s few running gags). But spiritually, and structurally, Transparent is a drama, one that draws your eye like a fiery car crash: horrific but undeniably, sickeningly entertaining.
The rules for ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’ at awards ceremonies can sometimes put shows where they don’t belong. Transparent will compete as a comedy at this year’s Emmys because its episodes are thirty minutes long, but Orange is the New Black, with hour-long instalments, will be classed as a drama. To pit Jeffrey Tambor’s textured performance as Maura against the Modern Family brood (baffling stalwarts of the Emmys comedy race) is like comparing apples and a hamburger; it seems wildly unfair.
A new era of television needs new rules for how to classify the industry’s output. Putting Transparent in the drama category does risk it up against heavy-hitters like House of Cards, Better Call Saul, and Game of Thrones. But that’s where it belongs, and, in my opinion, the Pfeffermans can take it.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith