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How Amazon’s Transparent Undercuts Dominant Television Narratives

Maura is making a break for it. That is, Mort, the 70-year-old patriarch of the Pfefferman family, has told his family that he is, in fact, transgender. This action is the impetus of Amazon Studios’ critical darling Transparent, which undercut heavily-marketed network shows to scoop up both Best Comedy and Best Leading Actor in a Comedy at this year’s Golden Globes. Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development fame plays Maura in this touchingly personal account of what it means to fully realize one’s identity in both private and public spaces, while also having three adult children who are all facing personal crossroads in their own lives. The first season is comprised of ten episodes, all nuanced in their exploration of both personal and familial identity. Creator Jill Soloway channels her personal story — her own father recently revealed his transgender identity to the family at the age of 75 — as well as a lifelong struggle with rigid gender constructions into the Pfeffermans’ narrative. What is unique about Transparent is that one has to have an Amazon Prime account in order to watch.

With the launch of streaming platforms provided by Netflix, Amazon and now Vimeo, a new class of television shows launched in 2013 that has radically changed the way we consume content, as well as that content itself. These services are unhinged from the constraints of advertising quotas; while large networks such as FOX, ABC and NBC have to participant in upfronts – mandatory events where marketers purchase airtime for ads that are also attended by press as well as a parade of the stars of hit and upcoming shows – streaming services can opt out. Without strings tied to funding, showrunners (those in charge of the overall vision of the show) and writers have full freedom to explore “the other” and finally produce narratives that service the rest of us who do not identify as part of the 23.4 million people-strong demographic that is watching The Big Bang Theory.

Transparent is Amazon Studios’ first success story since it started producing pilots in late 2010. This format allows anyone to submit a script or video concept with the possibility of getting a development endowment of $10,000 to make it a reality. Pilots are rolled out in groups, allowing a period of time for users to cast their votes, and then a crowdsourced winner is produced in full. Soloway certainly has industry pull from having been a showrunner on Six Feet Under for years, as well as at Showtime for United States of Tara. But, she faced years of development at her former TV homes, red tape and network notes that would have affected Transparent’s overall vision, as well as its timeline to get on air. Turnover at Amazon is one year and Soloway was guaranteed the rights back to her show if it flopped. In the entertainment industry, this kind of deal is unheard of. Amazon traps its content with a $99 subscription to its Prime service, which offers subscribers free two-day shipping on any products that it sells in addition to streaming access. To put this in perspective, a year of Netflix streaming is just a few dollars shy of $99.

According to research released by FX, there were 1,715 TV series that premiered in primetime in 2014. In January, Kevin Fallon at The Daily Beast further broke down the data to report that out of that gargantuan number, 352 were original narratives with writing staffs, and 24 of those shows are currently on the aforementioned streaming platforms. Culture vultures have a buffet to consume from, but to find stories that exist outside of a male gaze, or with queer and people of color characters who are actualized, proves difficult. During last year’s unavoidable frenzy over True Detective, Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker aptly wrote a review entitled “Cool Story, Bro” to finally pull us all out of the hype and re-direct us to the real problem: that the show is merely another incarnation of crime drama built around exploring male catharsis.

Illustration by Alex Karenina Kostiw

Illustration by Alex Karenina Kostiw

This is not to say that Transparent gets it all right. There is privilege at play, both in class since the Pferffermans are well-situated in their Pacific Palisades home, and in casting choice. The discontent with Tambor playing a trans woman is real and valid. However, just as Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan claims that Piper, her affluent white protagonist, was a “Trojan Horse” to have her show picked up by Netflix as a way to usher in stories about complex women of color, Solloway is utilizing Tambor similarly. Both shows have also become pipelines for visible advocacy in the LGBTQ community – one launching Laverne Cox onto the world stage and straight into our hearts and the other leveraging award speeches to make statements over death, loss and oppression within the transgender youth community.

Ultimately, Transparent transcends because it is quietly funny, smart and made with great care: a true act of love. Solloway hired her first transgender writer for the second season, and is staffing her set with as many transgender candidates over non to create a truly inclusive community. Transgender artist Zackary Drucker designed the show’s opening credits, which feature clips from 1968’s The Queen, a film that is considered to be a predecessor to 1990’s Paris Is Burning. Solloway is setting intentions to create visibility for the community through her art, and is willing to learn along the way. Just as the Pfefferman children ultimately fumble in their father’s transition, the show provides audiences a safe space to learn proper language and a window into the struggles of what it means to live in a heteronormative society.

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