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'Transparent' stars Jeffrey Tambor (centre) as a trans woman. Photo by Amazon Studios

Transcending normal

TV families have come a long way since Leave it to Beaver. Today’s shows feature gay couples, trans parents, alcoholism and poverty.

By Jonathan Forani

At the end of the pilot episode of Transparent, a new original series by Amazon Studios, Maura, a transgender father who used to be known as Mort, walks in on her married daughter kissing a woman. But well before that final scene, it’s obvious Transparent is a show about a uniquely modern family.

The dramedy, which launched in September and last month won two Golden Globe awards, is being heralded as a landmark series, not only for its transgender protagonist but also for its refreshing vision of what it means to be a family today. Over the course of the premiere 30 minutes, writer-director Jill Soloway slowly tears down traditional family norms until she arrives at that final scene, as if to say, “What’s coming is like nothing you’ve seen before.”

And she’s right. Transparent, based on Soloway’s real-life father, represents the new age of families on television. Expanding on what Modern Family started in 2009, Transparent underscores how the nuclear family has evolved beyond recognition from the days of Leave It to Beaver or Family Ties. From the Pritchetts and Dunphys of Modern Family to the Chances of Raising Hope and the Gallaghers of Shameless, there’s no cookie cutter for a “modern family” on TV.

Transparent follows the Pfefferman clan, a well-off Los Angeles crew of five. And that’s the most “normal” description of the Pfeffermans possible. The series focuses on the coming-out of patriarch Mort Pfefferman (Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor) as a trans woman, or the “trans parent” to the three Pfefferman children, all in their 30s and facing their own gender and sexual conflicts. Too edgy for network programming, the show is the first real hit among Amazon’s original offerings. (Episodes can now be streamed in Canada on Rogers and Shaw’s Shomi service.)

Even in its Six Feet Under-inspired family dysfunction (creator Soloway was a writer on the acclaimed HBO show), Transparent feels bracingly new. Most anywhere else, Tambor’s Maura would be a comical sidekick, and the lesbian affair of daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) would be a B-side storyline instead of a central relationship. Whereas many shows about families almost always pit the unit together, the Pfeffermans lead separate lives and guard their privacy. Transparent seems to say that being a family is about respecting the individual — as surprising and challenging as that can be.

A similar sense of novelty came with the premiere episode of ABC’s award-winning staple Modern Family, when the then-unmarried gay couple Mitchell and Cameron presented their adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily, to their family. As Cameron raised Lily into the air with The Circle of Life playing in the background, it wasn’t just hilarious; it was a kind of breakthrough, smashing conventional sitcom taboos. The whole of that family unit embraced their differences, at least for a moment.

So much of Modern Family has remained “modern,” and not just its “mockumentary” style of filming. The blended family of Jay and Gloria welcomed a new baby in season four, and Cam and Mitch were married in the fifth season. Still, the pretty, white and privileged families of sitcom yore have their successor in Modern Family. The Pritchetts and Dunphys scarcely face the struggles of an average family in their beautiful California homes, and storylines often revolve around material things (recall an entire episode devoted to the Apple iPad in season one).

ABC’s new sitcom Black-ish, which some have called “the next Modern Family,” offers more of the same. Starring Anthony Anderson as a Los Angeles advertising executive, the show tackles issues of race and identity but still fits the aspirational mould of earlier sitcoms like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, also about wealthy, good-looking black American families. Like the Pritchetts and Dunphys, these are families we want to be, not necessarily the families we are.

If the truly modern family of television requires some messiness, then the Pfeffermans of Transparent have that in spades. Though a well-to-do group, none are conventionally good-looking, and their personal conflicts outweigh any sense of aspiration. All of the Pfeffermans are as unlikeable as they are charming.

Programs like Raising Hope and Shameless, meanwhile, might be closer to the average experience of today’s families who don’t have the same deep pockets as the Modern Family clan. Raising Hope follows 20-something Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) as he brings up his daughter with his pool-cleaner dad, housecleaner mom and senile grandma played by Cloris Leachman. Shameless depicts the family of Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), an alcoholic single father of six who spends his days drunk while his kids raise themselves. Both shows examine low-income families not often seen on television comedies, at least since programs like Roseanne and My Name Is Earl. The Chances, and especially the Gallaghers, aren’t living comfortable lives, and neither are millions of modern families in North America. Aspirational programming like Modern Family in this way seems less truthful.

But the heart of a show about family is their connection to one another. Watch any Modern Family episode and see how it comes together at the end with the same “but we really love each other” finale. In more subtle ways, Transparent reveals its deepest message in how the Pfeffermans relate to each other. As Mort transitions to Maura, she rekindles a relationship with her ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light). While the pair were a dysfunctional duo as Mort and Shelly, they become a dynamic one as Maura and Shelly. (“We were gay-married before it was fashionable,” Shelly jokes.) It’s as if to say that knowing your family members, really knowing and understanding one another, is what brings the unit together. As the Pfefferman children slowly learn to accept who their “dad” has become — or rather who their parent was all along — there’s a beautiful family connection that transcends all the noise.

Jonathan Forani is a writer in Toronto.

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