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Jewish Chicago native’s hit show ‘Transparent’ showcases dysfunctional, but loveable Jewish family

I feel like I know the Pfeffermans, even though they're technically a television family.

Trans pic image
Jeffrey Tambor goes from Mort to Maura in "Transparent."

I love the Pfeffermans.  

I feel like I know the Pfeffermans, even though they're technically a television family. (If you want to be technical about it.) But the Jewish family at the center of Chicago Jewish native Jill Soloway's new(ish) TV series, Transparent, on, is so engaging, funny, loud, loving, and full of very familiar shortcomings, that I couldn't get enough.

So who are these Pfeffermans? If you've read any of the reviews, you already know that the center of the drama, the catalyst for the whole series (and for its clever name), is the father of the family, Mort, (Jeffrey Tambor) who at age 70-something decides to come out to his family (and the world) as his true self: Maura, a woman. 

The show starts with Mort, a retired professor, inviting his grown children over for dinner for the big reveal. There's the oldest, a wealthy stay-at-home mom named Sarah (Amy Landecker, also a Chicago native. Her father is radio personality John 'Records' Landecker), the middle brother, Josh (Jay Duplass), a music producer, and the 'baby,' Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who is forever trying to figure out who she is, which is a nice way of saying she doesn't have a job. If I had to guess, I would say they are supposed to range in age from early 30s to early 40s.

It's cancer, the kids think, arguing among themselves as they trudge up the steps to their childhood home where their father lives, a magnificent, modern house that is all glass, beams, wood, and of course, memories, perched high in the Los Angeles hills.  

As the dinner of ribs winds down, Mort loses his nerve and instead of introducing Maura, says that he's thinking of selling the house or possibly giving it to Sarah, which leads to some ugly bickering among the siblings.

"They are so selfish," Maura later says to her support group at the LGBT center. "I don't know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves." But his indictment is not entirely fair. Or rather, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

For while he and his ex-wife, Shelly, (Judith Light) were by all accounts devoted parents during their long marriage, as is evident by the flashbacks interspersed throughout, they are pretty self-involved themselves. How else to explain Mort's abrupt decision to let Ali cancel her bat mitzvah the day before the event supposedly in the name of personal liberty ("I said I didn't believe in God so they cancelled it," Ali says), but really because he wanted to sneak off to a transgender weekend at a camp in the woods? (There's a great scene where the young Ali, abandoned by everyone on the Shabbat morning that would have been her bat mitzvah, stands on the couch in her shorts and chants her Torah portion in a riveting modern dance performance for the teen who comes by to deliver the no longer needed food.)

Or the way Shelly doesn't seem that concerned when her second husband-who has suffered a stroke and can no longer speak-wanders off and disappears for hours? Telling her daughter she has a doctor's appointment that is impossible to reschedule so she is unable to join the search party, she later shows up with painted toe nails tucking out of the flimsy flipflops that are the telltale sign of a pedicure. 

So one parent lets his 13-year-old cancel a bat mitzvah, leaving his wife to clean up the mess while he runs off to the woods to wear a dress and heels while the other runs off to have her nails done while her mute, and possibly senile, husband is lost out yonder.

And yet, there is something so loveable about both Mort/Maura and Shelly Pfefferman, and it's not just the Yiddish expressions that they dole out so naturally or the way they tuck into the potato salad at a shiva with such gusto. (It should be noted that Shelly insists upon bringing her own supersized bottle of mustard to the shiva, too, "just in case." And it's not even the way Shelly never sits down or how she claps her hands and pronounces, "I'm going to cut up some cantaloupe!" that is so endearing. I mean, it is, but it's also how these parents, as flawed as they are, are also so obviously devoted to their kids and, it seems, to each other. Divorce or not, there is still something between them, a deep understanding, a bond, a friendship, which makes them much more likeable.

The "kids," too, are likeable, even if they're not always so loveable. Because this is a television drama after all, and dramatic it is, with the married (to a man) Sarah (and mother of two kids) diving head first into a lesbian affair with a former girlfriend, 

Josh, who is single and always falling in love-and falling into bed-with a multitude of women, eventually redeeming himself by falling for an age appropriate (ahem!) female rabbi, and Ali, who can never seem to find herself, but who is also tender hearted in a way her siblings aren't. 

But the essence of the show, the glue that holds it all together, is this nuanced parsing of the whole concept of gender. It's called Transparent, after all, a play not just on a transgender parent but also on transparency. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Or as one character puts it, "We're just a bunch of bodies, that's it. No penis, no vagina, what does it matter?"

When it comes to Maura, the answers to these questions become even murkier. "Are you saying that you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?" Sarah asks her father when she happens upon him, or rather her, in the flowing clothes and makeup of Maura. "No," says Maura, laughing and putting her hand on her heart. "All my life, my whole life, I have been dressing up like a man. This is me."

So there you have it. It's not as simple as Mort is now dressing as a woman named Maura, because physically, he's still a man. But emotionally and spiritually if you will, he is a she. And so as Maura, Mort isn't just dressing the part, he is finally being his true self, which happens to be a woman. This is the definition
of transgender.

But there is nothing preachy or even heavy handed about Transparent. It's at once light and funny and deep, which is certainly a testament to its creator and executive producer, Jill Soloway. 

A successful writer in Hollywood whose credits include Six Feet Under, Soloway grew up in Chicago. In the 90s, she and her sister created The Real Live Brady Bunch, a parody of the Brady Bunch that ran at the Annoyance theatre, which many people may remember. Her mother, Elaine Soloway, was a press aide to the late Mayor Jane Byrne and has published two memoirs and her father, Harry Soloway, is a psychiatrist. In her own life, her parents also divorced after a 30-year- marriage, her father came out as transgender a few years ago, and her mother's second husband lost his ability to speak.

But whether the Pfeffermans are based on the Soloways or not is immaterial. What matters is the show itself, which is straight up good television. I can hardly wait for Season 2, scheduled to come out sometime in 2015. 

Season 1 of Transparent is available for streaming or download on Abigail Pickus is a writer and editor living in Evanston. 

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