In “Crosstalks,” two writers sit down to discuss a book, movie, TV show, or piece of art they both feel strongly about. Sometimes they disagree; other times, they’re in perfect harmony. Here, Assistant Arts & Culture Editor Nathan Pugh ’21 and Arts & Culture Editor Dani Smotrich-Barr ’20 discuss the last season of “Transparent.”
DSB: Okay, so what do we think? The beginning was just so bad.
NP: I literally hadn’t watched the show since my freshman year of college. And jumping back in was like, “whoa!”
DSB: So much has happened since the first season came out in 2014 that now it feels like, obsolete in a weird way, even though for what it was doing then, it was insane.
NP: I’m so fascinated by how people criticize television, and then they include those criticisms into the show. Like I think at some point they realized, “We made a problematic decision to cast Jeffrey Tambor.” And then the show became so much more focused on the children and not Maura.
DSB: That’s what I feel like happened in the last few seasons. And then in this season, they directly referenced those casting choices in the musical within the show when they said, “We have to find a trans woman to cast.”
NP: My favorite episode from Season 3 is when Maura is answering calls for the Trevor Project and talks to a Black trans woman and is like, “Oh my God, I need to help you,” and then just makes all the wrong mistakes.
DSB: Right, that episode is probably one of the most intense.
NP: And I was just like, “Wow, you’re really showing how these privileged—even trans women—don’t get it.” But then I feel like it admitted it, and then they were like, “Okay, we’re good, right?” instead of actually making a Black trans woman part of the cast.
DSB: There were a lot of points where it seemed like the show was just saying the thing they felt like they were supposed to say, and not fleshing out the characters at all. There’s the moment in this episode with the young trans people that I didn’t know what to do with, because it was just so didactic. It was like, “We’re just trying to be employed but we’re discriminated against.”
NP: Right, and then there’s Tracy, who seems like she only exists to show how shitty cis men who fetishize trans women are. She even has that line in the musical in this episode: “I’m a supporting character. That’s what I’m here for—to support you.” I also feel like “Transparent” is just so culturally specific.
DSB: I do feel like there’s probably enough overlap between Jewish and queer senses of humor that you can still get something from it if you’re not Jewish. But then there are also literally jokes that happen in Hebrew, like when Ari [Gaby Hoffmann] comes back from Israel and then prays in this clearly fake Israeli accent. The barrier for entry to this show is so high. And I feel like I will never be so represented by a show again, but also is it valid to put on a show that’s this specific?
NP: It’s very much about liberal Jews living in LA. It’s so about that when I’m lobbying a criticism about why there aren’t any Black characters, I also wonder if maybe that’s not even the point of this show.
DSB: I do think that the way they use trans POC as supporting characters is kind of fucked up though.
NP: I feel like I was just waiting for “Pose” to happen. But what other show is going to be so uniquely from a queer Jewish perspective as “Transparent”?
DSB: I do think, though, that the show is always trying too hard to have a parallel between being Jewish and being trans or queer. Like they’re always like, “I am a stranger in a foreign land.”
NP: Yeah, or “We’re all transitioning.”
DSB: When did that happen? Oh God.
NP: I think Shelley [Judith Light] said it at one point.
DSB: What did you think of that song of Shelley’s “Your boundaries are my trigger?”
NP: I was like, “Holy shit.”
DSB: That was the most specific Jewish mother call out.
NP: There are moments when the musical numbers convinced me that they were justified, and there were moments when I was like, this should not be sung. I love musicals, but you’re just establishing such a different language for the show to operate in.
DSB: I feel like because the whole show lives in this very dark sarcastic humor, it tries to steer so away from sentimentality, that to take on musicals, which are the most sentimental genre doesn’t always make sense.
NP: There’s just too much happening. There’s two ways to do musicals, where they’re singing conversation and where they’re singing to the audience, and there was too much mixing of that. I just feel like it’s tonal whiplash. Like I was having this beautiful moment of pathos, and then suddenly they’re making fun of it.
DSB: I think there was just too much of Shelley by the end. Also, what bothered me was that there was this big moment where she performs on the boat, and then it’s just entirely repeated in this episode.
NP: I just felt like the show was built around Maura, and then she became the least interesting character of the show, and suddenly it was hard to stay invested.
DSB: I felt like I was the most invested in Ari throughout, because they felt like the most fleshed-out character, and here we don’t get that much from them. I feel like the child who got the most closure was Josh [Jay Duplass].
NP: And I kind of liked how unresolved it was with Raquel [Kathryn Hahn] before this episode. I just feel like there was a season’s worth of storylines condensed into one hour.
DSB: And there were people I loved—I wanted more screen-time with the Eileen Myles character [played by Cherry Jones], I wanted more with Alia Shawkat, there were other good supporting characters; and Raquel got so much screen-time for a secondary character.
NP: I thought Raquel was actually a very good character.
DSB: Do you think subliminally Jill Soloway thought that the Eileen Myles character couldn’t end up with Ari because Jill and Eileen broke up in real life?
NP: Hmm, maybe. There were other supporting characters, but I think the ones I got were good.
DSB: But it felt like a lot of the lyrics to the songs were written by someone who had no idea what was happening. Maybe I was just suspicious because it was Jill Soloway’s sister writing them.
NP: This show has always had a political bent. The entirety of Season 2 is this sweeping argument about how modern-day queerness can be connected to history. To compare the experiences of a modern trans woman to trans people in the Holocaust, for that to come out of what could have been a conventional family drama, holy shit!
DSB: And it was really anti-Zionist, and really upfront about portraying a queer Palestinian community.
NP: The show has always had a message it wanted to convey, but this was so awkwardly conveyed in a way that it hasn’t been before.
DSB: I think it’s gotten so stressed about conveying the right message that it’s not conveying anything anymore. It felt like it was trying to say, you can’t take anything at face value, and that’s almost a defense mechanism for fucking up.
NP: But also it’s doing the whole theater fantasy thing of saying, this isn’t real but it should be real. Like, obviously this isn’t how people interact in real life, but wouldn’t it be great if we could do this, you know?
DSB: The “Joyocaust” scene was truly horrendous.
NP: Just the word “Joyocaust.” I have to laugh, in a way that scares me, but also like—holy fuck.
DSB: I did want less time with Raquel and Josh though.
NP: I disagree. I think Raquel arguably was a central character to the show.
DSB: I don’t think she’s funny!
NP: She had an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress!
DSB: For this show? Are you kidding? The Eileen Myles character was much better.
NP: You’re just obsessed with Eileen Myles. The romantic tension between Josh and Raquel!
DSB: I think it’s also weird that they ended on a straight wedding. I don’t know.
NP: I want to talk about, “What does Transparent mean to you?”
DSB: I think it’s such a thing that we’re going to look at in five years and be like, “I can’t believe this happened at the time that it did.” It was a really important show to me when it came out.
NP: Me too! I feel like it was the first show that showed queer people grappling with their queerness as it related to their family. There’s a line in the pilot episode where [Maura] says, “My children are so selfish.” You see the reason why Ali [Ari] didn’t have a bat mitzvah, because her dad was a trans woman, going off to be with other trans people. For me, little closeted Nathan was thinking about how it all made sense. Like, how your queerness was ripping apart your family, as if coming out is selfish. But the show undoes that, by the end.
DSB: If you think about it, 2014 was the year before gay marriage was legalized. I’m still confused about how Amazon let this happen in 2014.
NP: I had a whole discussion of this in my Center for Humanities class, about how we can stream all this gay content even as Amazon is controlling the world. I feel like the landscape shifted so much from when it premiered until now. Or even like, since the last season in 2017.
DSB: Yeah, I know we should be more critical of it, and obviously I don’t support their casting choices, but the fact that they managed each season to stay as relevant as they did, and I feel like each season they got a little more woke. But I feel like we still haven’t really grappled with why it’s a musical.
NP: From what I’ve heard from Jill Soloway—
DSB: Last time you chatted?
NP: Last time I was on the phone with Jill…[Editor’s Note: False] they described needing to find a way to honor the work that has already been done, but also needing to transform it because the show has been transformed. I bet all these conversations happened behind closed doors, but I wish they had just admitted, “The reason why our show didn’t have a fifth season was because Jeffrey Tambor was being awful to the trans women on set.” I wish that was just a part of it.
DSB: I don’t understand why they didn’t have Our Lady J, who is a trans woman who writes for the show and is a song-writer, write the lyrics! It’s just confusing to me why they were like, “We’ve gotten critiques on not having good enough trans representation,” so they said, “Let’s get Jill Soloway’s sister to do it!”
NP: I do wonder what queer kids growing up will think of “Transparent.” We grew up with it. All the “Queer Eye” stuff, we didn’t have that! You threw Kurt [on “Glee”] singing “Single Ladies” and I ate it up! That was not great representation. Glee was the TV show that I really watched for the first time, with my family on DVDs. Not even Netflix…my sister realized I was gay was when she caught me dancing to the “Glee” cast version of “Bootylicious” and said, “Nathan, are you like Kurt?” and I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” We had scraps [of representation.] And now we have the weird “Transparent” musical finale? I bet the people before us are saying, “We had the ‘L Word.’ We had ‘Queer As Folk.’” Which are so much more problematic.
DSB: But do you think people are going to watch this like we watch “The L Word” in 10 years? Do you this will feel that obsolete?
NP: I hope it doesn’t!
DSB: I guess we need to have a focus group with older white lesbians and like, ten year olds, to really know.
NP: I think it’s going to be treated as an artifact of its time.
DSB: I feel that with shows like, “The L Word” or “Queer as Folk,” there were all of these people finding other queer people online because of talking about these shows. I don’t think that’s happening with “Transparent.” We were all just kind of watching it alone.
NP: The media landscape is so different, there’s literally hundreds of shows that we’re not watching. Someone could say, “Have you seen [anything]” and I would say, “Wow, I haven’t seen [anything]; what is it streaming on?”
DSB: I don’t know how well known this show is. I don’t think that many people at Wesleyan are even watching it.
NP: And Wesleyan’s the most queer Jewish place!
DSB: Right, where else are you going to find the perfect focus group for this show? And yet weirdly we both watched it alone in our houses.
NP: Freshman year, I remember talking to some LGBTQ people about “Transparent,” and people said, “Oooh, problematic.” I get it, it’s problematic. But can I have this one thing? These shows were all we had, I didn’t know who Eileen Myles was! This exposed me to so much that I actually wouldn’t be exposed to growing up. I just wouldn’t interact with it. I feel like people take so much for granted and don’t understand that some people have to navigate going to Wesleyan and going back home. Because I think some people grew up in New York and go to Wesleyan, and don’t see any difference between the two. I remember being here freshman year, and thinking about how I was this ragingly gay, flamboyant person in Alexandria, Va., and coming here and thinking “I’m not gay enough, I need to gay it up.” And to go back at the end of freshman year summer and be back home, having to navigate all of that was hard. I don’t think people understand…
DSB: The privilege of getting to be the same person all the time?
Dani Smotrich-Barr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at email@example.com.