Late in the premiere episode of Transparent, Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) confides in the members of her transgender support group at the Los Angeles LGBT Center that she did not come out to her three grown children as she had promised at a prior meeting. “It just wasn’t time,” she says, then pauses and continues: “They are so selfish. I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”
Maura’s internal conflict – which is, for all intents and purposes, the show’s internal conflict – is encapsulated beautifully here. She is a senior citizen, retired and divorced, and she is ready to finally live her life openly. But how can she do so when her loved ones are so self-involved that they are unable to adequately support her?
But wait. Before we even try to broach that question, let’s back up: Who are the selfish offspring of which Maura speaks?
We meet them in the pilot’s opening montage. There’s Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), the youngest, who spends her unemployment fantasizing about fitness instructors in Griffith Park and spitballing ideas with her best friend Syd (Carrie Brownstein) for “Urban Outfitter check-out line” books. There’s Josh (Jay Duplass), the sophisticated music producer who spends more time Tweeting photos of Kaya and Margaux (Alison Sudol and Clementine Creevy), the precious blonde sisters who comprise the band Glitterish, than he does actually working at the office. And then there’s Sarah (Amy Landecker), the first-born, who is the type of progressive stay-at-home mom who plays the “Free to Be You and Me” soundtrack when driving her kids to school but is seemingly unaware of the privileges that allow her to employ a full-time housekeeper while not working herself. In the opening minutes of the series, it is clear why these children would be the primary source of both frustration and joy in Maura’s life.
While going about their morning routines, each young Pfefferman receives a phone call from Maura – still identifying as “Mort” within the family, at this point – inviting them over for dinner. (Note: for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to Maura as “Maura” when discussing the scenes in which she presents as a woman and as “Mort” when discussing the scenes in which she presents as a man. Apologies if it gets complicated, but hey, gender is complicated.) Sarah receives the call shortly before dropping her children off at school, where she runs into Tammy Cashman (Melora Hardin), an interior designer with a short haircut and tailored suit that would make Rachel Maddow swoon. They catch up over lost time; Tammy shares that she’s on her second marriage and raising her second daughter, while Sarah defensively admits that she’s “married…to a man.” As their conversation wraps up, Tammy slides on her shades and tells Sarah “You look great, kid,” before walking away, leaving Sarah to melt in a puddle of sexual frustration. For her part, Hardin pulls off the Power Lesbian swagger seamlessly. Who knew Jan Levinson-Gould had it in her?
Meanwhile, after Ali answers her father’s call while jogging in Griffith Park and gazing at a particularly sexy trainer, she visits Josh to discuss. She meets Glitterish and ribs Josh about their twee-ness (yes, one of the girls plays the triangle, but “it’s actually very important to the sound,” he assures her) before they broach their shared concern: does Dad have cancer? If so, Josh tells Ali, “he should start giving us twelve thou a year now,” for inheritance purposes. Classy move, son.
That night, Ali and Josh pull up to the Pfefferman house and meet Sarah outside, bags of barbecue take-out from Shotgun Willie’s in her arms. Sarah’s certain the news won’t be cancer – it’ll be Mort’s engagement to Marcy. (Which Marcy in particular – Marcy Goldberg, Marcy Kaplan, Marcy Kristallnacht, Marcy Belsen-Berger – was its own question for debate.) As they reach the door, Mort embraces them each individually, a gesture that seemingly sets them just a little bit more on edge.
As they prepare dinner, Sarah tells Ali about her run-in with Tammy at school. Ali’s not sure that Sarah’s husband, Len, will be thrilled to know this – after all, Sarah and Tammy were “lezzing it up” together all through college. Speaking of girlfriends, will Marcy be coming to dinner, Sarah asks? No, Mort shares – they’ve broken up, and he’s fine.
The Pfeffermans devour their barbecue in the messiest manner possible – fittingly, since they “come from shtetl people” – and talk over one another until Mort finally tries to tell the children why they’ve gathered together that night. “There’s a big change going on, and…” is as far as he can get before burying his face in his hands and repeating “I love you kids, I love you kids” under his breath as Sarah, Josh, and Ali look on panicked. Now the cancer speculation erupts, completely silencing the rest of Mort’s thought. When he finally regains composure, he announces that he doesn’t have cancer, but that he will be moving out of the family house. The house will be gifted to Sarah and Len, a fact that infuriates Josh and effectively ends the boisterous yet affable dinner that had been underway.
Before leaving, Ali spends a moment with Mort in private, as he writes her a check to help her cover her living expenses. In a last-ditch attempt to establish the intimacy and connection he’d worked to cultivate all evening, Mort tells Ali, “Out of all my kids, you’re the one. You can see me most clearly. It’s probably because we share the depressive gene.” Ali denies her depression, to which Mort replies, “Boy, it is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see.” Before that thought takes its next logical step, Ali is called away by Sarah, and Mort is home alone.
Mort takes off his shirt, picks up the phone, and walks into the bathroom. Moments later, Maura exists. It is the first time we see her, wearing a colorful nightgown, growing out her grey hair, and telling the person on the other end of the line, “I couldn’t do it. My God, I had no idea it was going to be so hard.”
Maura is far from the only Pfefferman with a secret. Instead of returning home to Kaya, he walks into Rita’s apartment. She tells him to get comfortable, so he curls up in the fetal position on her floor. When she enters, we see none of the youthfulness of Josh’s interactions with Kaya. Rita (Brett Paesel) is, by all accounts, not a child. She is an older woman with a much fuller figure than the Glitterish sisters and an aura of sexual dominance that, quite literally, sends Josh to his knees. The scene is so sensually raw that it is feels uncomfortable to watch. It’s too early to tell what, exactly, that discomfort suggests, but it is one of the most striking moments in the episode.
In the morning, Sarah and Len (Rob Huebel) stand at their his-and-her bathroom sinks and Sarah tells him about the previous night’s dinner. “Sure it’s not cancer?” Len wonders. Yes, Len, by now we are pretty positive it’s not cancer. But Sarah’s got another concern on her mind: could they arrange a play-date for their children and Tammy’s daughter? “She’s that lesbian I went to Madison with,” Sarah clarifies nervously. “I like lesbians,” Len cheerfully replies. You might like them even more than you realize, Len!
Ali introduces us to the final member of the Pfefferman clan – mother Shelly (Judith Light). Ali visits her mother and tells her about Mort’s plans to leave the family house, bought by Mort and Shelly in 1972. Shelly is skeptical of her ex-husband’s plans – “I wouldn’t believe a word your father says” – and pushes her geriatric boyfriend Ed to eat his cantaloupe.
Kaya is less than thrilled that Josh came home so late. “I can’t sleep without you next to me!” he pleads with her. “Oh my god, you have your Ambiens,” she scoffs. Are there no functional relationships in this show?!
We’ve now reached the scene that opened this recap – Maura talking about her attempted coming-out dinner with her kids. Not only is this the first time we really see Maura interact with other people as Maura, it is also the first scene in which transgender actors play nearly every character (Tambor as Maura excluded). Regardless of whether showrunner Jill Soloway should have cast a trans performer in the lead role, a question sure to be debated in countless thinkpieces in the coming weeks, this scene makes it clear that trans people will be a real, noticeable presence on the show.
Sarah and Tammy cross paths at school again, and this time Sarah has a proposition: could Tammy look at Sarah’s soon-to-be house with her designer’s eye? Yes? How about right now?
They drive to the Pfefferman family house and sneak into the bedroom through the unlocked slider door. Once they arrive, it is clear that they are both way less interested in redecorating the house than they are in making sexy eyes at each other, so they commence with flirting and fondling and making out like teenagers. This love scene is intercut with Josh staring longingly at Glitterish as they cover a Jim Croce song and Ali finally getting the nerve to approach that hunky trainer in the park (Cleo Anthony) and seek his “discipline.” But before long, Maura has returned from the support group, and she’s just as surprised to see her daughter engaging in a lesbian love affair as Sarah is surprised to see her father dressed so stylishly. Coming out, it seems, refuses to abide by clean-cut schedules. Cut to black.
With that, Amazon may finally have a piece of original content strong enough to compete with Netflix. Stay tuned and join me to find out how the rest of Season 1 fares!