As Amazon has moved into the original television business, the online retailer has made a great deal of the fact that, unlike its network competitors, it’s showing audiences the pilots of the shows it’s considering picking up and considering audiences’ reviews as part of its decision-making process. But when the company announced which of its second round of pilots would be moving forward to full series, it made one decision that seemed more attuned to critical opinion than pure public reaction. Among other shows, Amazon’s moving forward with “Transparent,” a dark comedy from creator Jill Soloway about a Los Angeles family.
And not just any Los Angeles family. Jeffrey Tambor stars in the show as Mort, a transgender woman who’s preparing to come out to her family, and who’s spending time living in the gender identity she plans to transition to before having surgery to change her body. Transgender characters are exceptionally rare on television, and “Transparent” may well be the first American show to tackle this stage of gender transition. The show also breaks with another tradition in American pop culture. Rather than serving up Mort as a deviation from the norm from which the non-trans, heterosexual members of his family can learn and ultimately use as a spur to their growth, everyone in Mort’s family is analyzing their own identity. Mort’s daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), who is married to a man, discovers Mort’s plans during a tryst with one of her former lovers, a woman. And his younger children, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann, fresh off a revealing stint on Girls) and Josh (Jay Duplass) are struggling to determine who they are professionally and sexually after years of depending on Mort financially.
It’s no mistake that a family this complex is showing up in a comedy, rather than a drama. Amazon has picked up several hour-long shows, too. But in “Transparent,” it’s recognizing a growing trend: If you want to tell a serious story about our culture, politics and sexuality, you have to get silly.
Seventeen years ago, when “Oz” premiered on HBO, it was a drama that provided television audiences with a serious look at the American prison system, with all of its gang dynamics, spiritual crises, fluid sexuality and class difference. Now, that slot’s filled by a dramedy — Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name. The men of “Oz” were sometimes baroquely violent criminals and repulsive people made sympathetic by sensitive writing and carefully-developed relationships. But the women of “Orange Is The New Black” are largely non-violent offenders, incarcerated for frauds, drug offenses and crimes of passion. And the show, in between dance-offs and quests for a legendary chicken, raises serious questions about prison health care, support for former inmates as they’re released back into the community and the training given to prison staff.
“Orange is the New Black” is hardly the only comedy or show with humorous elements to steal a march on its dramatic, and supposedly more serious, predecessors. Dramas “House of Cards” and “The Newsroom” make a virtue of their cynicism, insisting, respectively, that pure ruthlessness and a willingness to stick it to corporate phonies are somehow missing from our political and media environments. If only, both shows insist, politicians and journalists were willing to just behave differently, it would be easier to make significant change. That’s a shockingly naive view of Washington and of the media.
Two comedies, HBO’s “Veep” and NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” paint a much more complex portraits of American politics and the challenges of achieving substantive change through elected office and government bureaucracy. Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and civil-servant-turned-city-councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) are both talented women whose personalities sometimes get the best of them: They can be bossy, self-absorbed and rude to people who disappoint them. But they’re also working in environments where their talents aren’t always an asset. Selina is a sharp-tongued woman in a job where she’s only supposed to speak platitudes, while Leslie is a policy wonk whose proposals often put her out ahead of her Indiana constituency. Both shows suggest that politics’ true problems are as silly as often as they are grand. But that doesn’t make those problems any less maddening–just more difficult to transcend.
That willingness to acknowledge goofiness, confusion and spluttering frustration is also part of the comedies that aren’t about policy or process, but simply about the parts of day-to-day life that are intensely political.
On FX’s sitcom “Louie,” Louis C.K. struggles with how to explain racism to his young daughters, while also introducing them to his great aunt Ellen, who uses racist slang. Fox’s “Raising Hope,” a portrait of a blue-collar family that’s wrapping up its fourth and final season this spring, has captured everything from the characters’ joy in getting the education they missed out on to the delirium of a sugar rush from a wildly unbalanced diet. “Looking,” HBO’s sitcom about young gay men in San Francisco, has conjured up a hilarious sketch of white liberal discomfort and guilt in the interracial relationship between Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a young, white, affluent video-game designer, and Richie (Raúl Castillo), his Latino hairstylist boyfriend. Even HBO’s much-criticized “Girls” has taken a flaying knife to how the money that lets young women float aimlessly in New York gives them an excuse not to develop the social and professional skills that would allow them to become independent.
This is not to say that dramas can’t thoughtfully explore political issues. The sweeping fantasy “Game of Thrones” may be treated like a genre trifle, but it’s deeply engaged with what happens to a society that tolerates sexual violence and massive class stratifications. And CBS’s “The Good Wife” is the first show to consider the challenges of technology policy and law in a sustained and sophisticated way. But many of their hour-long counterparts are so caught up in grisly crimes, troubled middle-aged men and grim portents that they’re missing the rest of life. It’s in comedies where the laughter keeps us clear-eyed enough to see what’s happening around us.