by Joey Saunders
Before I introduce you to the Pfeffermans, the fascinating, tight-knit train wreck of a family in Jill Soloway’s beautiful new comedy, “Transparent,” on Amazon Prime, I’ll tell you a little story about my psychiatrist and me. I’m a busy guy. The best way to maintain energy and focus when you’re a busy guy is to eat healthily and regularly maintain an active lifestyle, and to maintain a supportive social life. Unfortunately, I’m a lazy, borderline-indigent recluse so none of that was feasible. The easiest, most cost-effective way to be a functioning member of society is to get Adderall. For this reason, I started seeing a psychiatrist. I took a test, got an ADHD diagnosis, and a prescription for a steady supply of little orange productivity pills. I just had to talk to the doctor once a month so he could adjust the dosage.
One month, my psychiatrist somehow had me talking about gay filmmaker Mike White’s, poignant comedy, “Enlightened,” starring everyone’s favorite paleobotanist, Laura Dern. “Enlightened” had been canceled by HBO after only two extraordinary seasons despite Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe win for Dern, and a valiant Internet campaign to #SaveEnlightened led by critics and celebrities like comedian and Twitter-maven, Patton Oswalt. “Are you OK?” My shrink leaned forward on the edge of his seat. I furrowed my brow at him. He continued, “Because, we’ve spoken a few times before, and you seem genuinely upset about this show being canceled. It seemed, for a moment there, like you were going to be emotional.”
I rolled my eyes at the Kleenex box on the coffee table between us, “Well, I am upset. But it’s not weird. I mean, think of it this way: Think of a book or movie or TV show you love. You invest a lot of your time into getting to know these characters, right? You get to know them and spend time with them. If it’s really well-done, if it’s more than just escapism, these characters should feel real to us. That’s a mark of great art, isn’t it, being able to engage an audience emotionally? I don’t think I’m going to cry, but I am upset that “Enlightened” is being canceled because it was a really well-made show, and I grew to love the characters and identify with them. In a small way, it’s like grieving a death.”
My psychiatrist conceded that he saw my point and, since I still hadn’t ever plotted to kill the president because I misread Salinger, we just talked about TV shows and movies for the rest of the hour before he wrote me another prescription and sent me on my way.
So, spend the holidays binge-watching fictional characters that you’ll probably like a lot more than your family, or most real-life people. Of course, your time is valuable, so don’t waste it on old episodes of “Will & Grace.” Yes, it helped open the door for LGBT presence in the media, but so did “Ellen” (with help from Laura Dern in “The Puppy Episode”), and, with all due respect to these trailblazers, you can do better.
For whatever reason, “Ellen,” “Will & Grace,” and “Glee” seem to get the bulk of the credit when people discuss the evolution of LGBT presence in media, when there are better, older pioneers. In 1895, one of the first films, “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film,” depicted two men dancing with one another. While it’s arguable that this footage was intentionally “gay,” audiences at the time were scandalized by the implications. You can easily find a clip on YouTube. The first same-sex kiss appears in the 1927 WWI film, “Wings,” which went on to win the first Academy Award Oscar for Best Picture. The film includes male and female nudity and, while two men kiss on the lips, it occurs while a character is on his deathbed and may be more of a tragic expression of platonic love than a gay romance.
From 1930 to 1968 films were censored by what was commonly called the Hays Code in an effort to make Hollywood appear more moral. Gay and lesbian characters were insinuated at best and erased at worst. The first English-language film to ever use the word “homosexual” was “Victim,” a 1961 English film that was banned in the United States but nominated for two BAFTAs (Oscar’s British equivalent). “Victim” is a fascinating noir film that you can find under the Criterion collection on HuluPlus with sumptuous black and white cinematography and a compelling blackmail-and-murder plot at its melodramatic center.
Throughout cinematic history, LGBT characters typically fell into the following archetypes: the tragic figure, the villain, the comic relief. Even after the Hays Code ended, even in the 1990s and early 2000s, LGBT characters typically fell into these categories. Villainous killer gays in “Rope,” “Basic Instinct,” “Monster” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Tragic lovers, suicidal queers or AIDS-afflicted gays in “Brokeback Mountain,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Hours” or “Philadelphia.” In serious Hollywood dramas, LGBT characters rarely got a happy ending. Even rarer are incidentally gay characters, those defined by their goals before their sexuality. Modern TV and Film still has a bad habit of treating diverse human sexuality or gender identity as a plot point or a story-of-the-week, rather than one of many characteristics belonging to a complex, multi-faceted individual.
What’s admirable about “Will & Grace” is that the gay characters, while they are white-washed, silly caricatures of modern gay men, is that typically the episodes’ plotting revolved around characters who had goals that were unrelated to their sexuality.
Other than “Ellen” and a few very special episodes of “The Golden Girls,” LGBT characters had never been this visible on television. Still, as America got used to the idea of LGBT people being “normal,” it’s hard to argue that there are no merits to the coming-out plotline. One of the best, earliest examples comes from the highly binge-able HBO series “Six Feet Under.”
Michael C. Hall is best known for carrying the weight of the entire nonsensical Showtime serial killer series, “Dexter.” While “Dexter” has gone down in TV history for having one of the worst series finales ever, “Six Feet Under” will forever be remembered for having one of the best. The series was created by Oscar-winning “American Beauty” scribe, Alan Ball. It’s about a family, the Fishers, who own a Los Angeles funeral home, and how they deal with life as they’re surrounded by death. It’s beautiful, exquisitely acted, and filled with dark humor and addictive storylines that helped usher in HBO’s splashier prestige family drama, “The Sopranos.” And while “The Sopranos” is an undeniably fantastic series, its penultimate season features a gay character as more of a plot device and conversation piece than a fully formed human being. On “Six Feet Under,” Hall plays David Fisher, a complex, fastidious, loving, flawed individual who happens to be gay. And, while many storylines milk David’s journey to accept his sexuality, come out, find love, and try to create a family of his own, they feel authentic and nuanced. You can find “Six Feet Under” on Amazon Prime or HBO Go.
“Six Feet Under” also features a black, gay character, Keith, (played by Mathew St. Patrick) a police officer who is stereotypically masculine, muscular, and much more out-and-proud than David. While I am always eager to see more LGBT people of color depicted on air, Keith sometimes feels more like an idea or a statement than David. The best non-white gay and lesbian characters can be found on HBO’s near-perfect cops-and-crime drama, “The Wire.” Michael K. Williams portrays Omar, one of TV’s most iconic characters, whose sexuality transforms him from a pariah to a kind of lone-wolf Robin Hood of indigent, African-American Baltimore. Pair that with Black-Korean American actress Sonja Sohn’s portrayal of workaholic lesbian, Detective Kima Greggs, as one of the series’ few moral centers, and you have an explosive Molotov cocktail of fine writing and acting. “The Wire’s” dedication to realism makes the dialogue a little difficult to follow and the pilot episode includes a pandering flashback, but once you get into it, you’d be hard-pressed to discover a more rewarding drama. Like “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire” is available on HBO Go and Amazon Prime.
Clearly, HBO seems to have a monopoly on quality LGBT characters. Due to network television’s dependency on advertisers and puritanical censorship of any kind of sex, let alone the gay variety, audiences of network TV (CBS, FOX, ABC, NBC, and what is now CW) were conditioned to seeing more and more graphic violence on shows like “CSI” and “Law and Order,” while consensual sex was deemed inappropriate and a gay kiss, well, that was abhorrent. Fast forward to today and we have gay and lesbian teens on FOX’s “Glee” making mature sexual decisions, albeit off-screen. What’s unfortunate about “Glee” is that its approach can often feel like an after-school-special. “Glee” started as something bizarre, a tonal roller coaster that was compulsively watchable because it embraced its rougher edges. Lately, it’s become too self-conscious, recycling storylines and focusing on stunt-casting guest stars and inconsistent character developments that drained the series of its freshness even before male lead Cory Monteith’s, untimely passing. “Modern Family” remains an awards darling and a comedy staple for ABC, but there’s more honesty and beauty in the LGBT characters that populate two comedic series unshackled by the constraints of network TV.
The first, of course, is the multi-ethnic cast of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” Women in prison has been a cinematic trope for decades, usually as an exploitative borderline-pornographic subgenre that showcased butch wardens coercing nubile inmates into lesbian sex. Terence Winter’s fantastic “Boardwalk Empire” – a series that, sadly, only recently began to transcend its gangster genre trappings and remains one of the most visually beautiful TV accomplishments – plays with this trope but ultimately drops the ball to make room for more compelling storylines in a shortened final season. Empire also contains a strong, complex lesbian character in its earlier, weaker seasons, played effectively by Aleksa Palladino opposite Michael Pitt.
But “Orange,” written by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, takes the women-in-prison trope and turns it on its head. In some ways, Kohan takes the best elements of a high school drama by using WASPy, new inmate Taylor Schilling as our conduit into a new world a la “Mean Girls’” Cady Heron as she navigates a unique set of rules and lunchroom politics. But “Orange” is so effective and resonant because, through its deft character development and flashbacks, we understand that each inmate is more than her sexuality, her race, her crime. Just because a person commits an evil act doesn’t mean they aren’t redeemable. That’s the problem with so many early depictions of gay, lesbian, and transgender characters: redemption was scarce; the outcome was usually death or suicide.
For all its faults, there’s a great guilty pleasure flick called “The Boys in the Band” that was, in its own way, groundbreaking. It plays like a gay knock-off of Edward Albee’s plays, as a bunch of gay guys gather to celebrate a friend’s birthday and end up getting drunk and screaming at each other during a thunderstorm. Sometimes it’s probably more authentic than its detractors want to admit, but it often comes across as self-loathing and unintentionally hilarious. Nevertheless, it contains the great line, “Not every faggot gets bumped off in the end.”
“Orange” doesn’t treat all, or even most, of its lesbian and trans characters as tragic figures. That’s probably why, in spite of its often bleak social critiques of the prison system and the prison that is modern society, “Orange is the New Black” remains such a hopeful comedy. The series isn’t afraid to admit that America is rigged for wealthy, straight, white people to achieve success, while the rest of us have to fight for it, but it does offer myriad characters we’re happy to fight with.
A great quote from “Orange” comes from the warden’s executive assistant, “Fig,” an ambitious woman who, with her husband, is more concerned with economic and political gain than the well-being of her inmates. When a trans inmate, played radiantly by Laverne Cox, needs estrogen pills, Fig is baffled by her decision to transition from male to female in the first place, “Why would anyone get a sex change if they were born a man? That’s like winning the genetic lottery and giving your ticket back.”
Maura (né “Mort”) Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is just starting to own her womanhood as she struggles to be an out trans-person in Jill Soloway’s new dramedy exclusively on Amazon Prime. Soloway previously wrote for “Six Feet Under” and remains an adroit observer of the uniquely human struggle that comes with being a family. Like “Orange” and “Six Feet,” the series’ tone is hopeful amidst a mess of seriously flawed individuals.
Tambor plays the patriarch of his dysfunctional brood as Mort, an affluent, Jewish, liberal academic who experiments with cross-dressing many years before realizing his life as a cisgender man feels dishonest. Mort metamorphoses into Maura with the help of a support group in West Hollywood. Tambor’s performance is astonishing, well researched, and quietly commanding. The supporting performers hold their own.
Gaby Hoffmann plays Ali, Tambor’s sensitive, intelligent daughter, adrift in life with endless potential and zero drive, the sort of millennial that bloggers love to hate-write about. Tambor’s eldest, Sarah, is played by Amy Landecker, whose perfect life – beautiful house and children, loving husband is turned to tumult as she reignites an old affair. Landecker’s character seems to be the most understanding of her father’s transition but she’s almost too eager to be politically correct and is impatient with Mort’s reticence to fully be Maura. The middle child, Jay Duplass as Josh, is a addicted to work and women, but not in the Don-Draper-womanizing kind of way. No, Josh is almost creepily eager to be in love and start a family which leads to a scene that includes abortion and Holocaust jokes that are surprisingly inoffensive and hilarious.
The siblings are almost as solipsistic as their shrill but well-intentioned mother Shelly, played by the riotous Judith Light. They constantly bicker in the loving, yet cutting way that siblings and mothers often do.
Some of the more intriguing scenes offer a glimpse into Maura’s support system, especially those featuring her new friend, Davina, played with poise by trans woman Alexandra Billings. While “Glee” actor Alex Newell did decent work as Unique, the storylines were rushed and it was never clear if the character was meant to be transgender or just wanted to dress as a woman. Soloway, her directors and cast envelope us in a richly realized world that is sometimes frustrating to watch (in a good way), but always feels truthful. Because the characters are affluent, white liberals in Los Angeles, Soloway allows us to experience Maura’s difficulties without making us feel the dread of violence that usually accompanies transgender-centric plots. While those stories deserve to be told, this one lets viewers linger in the psychological and emotional threats to Maura’s personhood, her place in society, in her own family, rather than physical threats.
The first trans actor or storyline I ever saw was in Ryan Murphy’s soapy-thriller series “Nip/Tuck.” It felt exploitative and ended with a character being held at gunpoint and forced to cut his transgender lover’s penis off. “Transparent” is more exciting because it feels familiar and real. By no means is the series wholesome. Sometimes it does seem as if it’s trying too hard to be edgy and provocative, but every scene comes from a genuine place. The characters can be nightmarishly cruel, a symptom of their own selfish myopia, but they ultimately work at loving each other. If you take the time to watch this warm, thought-provoking new series you will be glad you took the time to get to know the Pfeffermans, you will be happy to know you can revisit them for a second season on Amazon Prime in 2015, and you will feel hopeful about the future of LGBT characters in film and television.
Most Binge-able Series of 2014:
- Transparent (Amazon Prime). See above.
- Masters of Sex (Showtime). Features amazing acting and writing all around including Beau Bridges’ best work as a provost in the late 1950s struggling with his sexuality and Allison Janney’s Emmy-award-winning performance as his wife.
- Game of Thrones (HBO). This season introduced Oberyn Martell, whose guile and bravery inspired millions of man-crushes and whose monologue explaining his bisexuality was the sexiest thing on a show that never lacks for nudity.
- Mad Men (AMC). Part one of the final season was just as perfect as ever. This slow-paced, ruminative period piece isn’t for everyone, but will live on as one of the greatest TV series of all time. Don Draper’s quest to live happily and honestly has been underlined in this and previous seasons by the difficulties his gay co-workers often face.
- Orange is the New Black (Netflix). The second season arguably improves on the first; see above.
Honorable mentions: Broad City, Looking, Louie, The Good Wife, Girls, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, Bob’s Burgers, The Affair
Best Movies so far in 2014:
- Boyhood (Richard Linklater). Filmed over 12 years, there isn’t much LGBT material, but the themes resonate with anyone who has grown up in America or has been a parent, or a sibling, or has a soul.
- Pride (Matthew Warchus). I worry this one might be overlooked come awards season, but it’s an amazing, nearly-flawless period piece about gays and lesbians who support a miner’s strike in Thatcher-era U.K. Funny, moving, amazing performances. It’s a crowd-pleaser but you never feel condescended to.
- Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu). What could be gayer than the theatre? Michael Keaton plays a washed-up movie star who hasn’t had a hit since he played an iconic superhero. When he tries to revamp his image by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play, the process unravels him. This odd, poetic, dark comedy is the perfect allegory for how we all struggle to prop up our egos and prove we are significant amid the noise of social media.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). A spirited comedy-adventure about a famed concierge and his lobby boy who become dear friends and find themselves in the middle of a deadly art heist. The usual highly-stylized Anderson trappings but with a tighter plot and a bigger heart.
- Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho). I loved “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but this smart, zany flick was the best sci-fi action-adventure this year. Chris (Captain America) Evans stars alongside Oscar winners Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer as he battles to get to the front of a futuristic train controlled by a cruel, wealthy oligarchy after a failed attempt to quell global warming causes a second ice age.
Current or upcoming movies
Some movies to watch now and in the coming months: Nightcrawler, Big Hero 6, Wild, Interstellar, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice, and, of course, The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, who was integral in cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code, thereby helping to win WWII, only to be criminally prosecuted as a homosexual.