What would “Transparent” look like without Jeffrey Tambor?
Imagining it seems like an impossible task for a show that relies so deeply on its main character and star. As Amazon investigates complaints that Tambor, 73, sexually harassed a colleague on the set during the show’s second season, the actor announced Sunday that he won’t return to the series. He disputes the allegations made against him, but, he said in a statement, “Given the politicized atmosphere that seems to have afflicted our set, I don’t see how I can return to ‘Transparent.’ ”
For four seasons (the most recent of which was released on Amazon Prime in September) “Transparent” has brilliantly and beautifully followed Tambor’s character, Maura Pfefferman, as she transitioned to life as a woman.
The show, of course, was never only about her. Maura’s adult children — Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman) — quickly accepted their father, Mort, as their “moppa,” Maura, but are mostly absorbed with their own personal and relationship issues and hang-ups. Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) is a study in masked pain and self-delusion, arguably the most complex and entertaining character on the show.
But before we go further, the question is should “Transparent” go further? Amazon (whose founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns of The Washington Post) announced plans for Season 5 several weeks ago. It can still pull the plug, if it decides to, and the obvious solution (kill Maura off) seems harsh. For creator Jill Soloway and the show’s crop of talented, sensitive writers, there’s plenty of opportunity here, especially because they’ve already lifted “Transparent” into an intellectual space that transcends the usual narrative of the transgender process.
With great thought and arftful execution, “Transparent” has become a master class on gender and sexuality as experienced by just about anyone, but especially by those in the Pfefferman orbit. Although the show has focused on Maura’s discoveries from Maura’s point of view, it has diligently chronicled all sorts of awakenings and self-awareness in other characters, with story lines that track, metaphorically, with Maura’s change.
Along the way, “Transparent” became one of the finest works (including novels) on the experience of being Jewish in modern America. One way to reboot “Transparent” might be to delve into the Pfefferman family’s complicated past, which we’ve seen glimpses of in flashbacks and which include examples of gender questioning and persecution, with the Holocaust as a backdrop. An entire prequel series is possible in the Pfefferman ancestry, which could occasionally flash-forward to the present day.
Another option: Make it a show about Ali Pfefferman. Season 4 already laid the groundwork for the idea that Ali is finally finding her truer self — and Hoffman’s performance is more than strong enough to become a focal point.
In an unforgettable recent scene, Ali and Maura go through security at Los Angeles International Airport on their way to Israel. As her daughter moved ahead of her through the checkpoint, Maura has a vision (to the soundtrack of “Jesus Christ Superstar” running through her head) of her daughter being lifted to glory by a group of men in Orthodox garb. Ali was briefly bathed in an ethereal light, a conscious passing-through to a new level.
Is she “Transparent’s” messiah, so to speak? Will she be the one to work through and beyond the generations of family hurt? Will she transition, in both a gender and spiritual sense?
Or maybe “Transparent” could just find someone else to play Maura. It’s not as crazy as it sounds — soap operas used to do it all the time when actors or actresses moved on (“The role of Maura will now be played by . . .”). There’s an even better reason to try this: Accepting his second consecutive Emmy in 2016 for “Transparent,” Tambor said he hoped he would be the last cisgender actor to play the role of a transgender person. In hindsight, it almost sounds like prophecy — why not recast Maura with a transgender actress of a certain age? What could more affirm the show’s core value?
Whether a show dies of natural causes or from unseemly personnel problems, it usually doesn’t faze the TV critic, who has a ruthless attitude about show business and plenty else to watch. Netflix’s “House of Cards” is in a similar state of limbo, attempting one final season sans Kevin Spacey, but why bother? That was always a deliberately dark show that turned corruption into an unhealthy fetish and stopped being interesting somewhere in its second season. The only message in “House of Cards” was that everyone is worse than they seem.
“Transparent’s” message is that we can all become someone better. It is full of empathy and love and new information. It teaches me things I didn’t know. Surely it is too soon to say goodbye to a show like that.