Although not a film as such, Jill Soloway’s Transparent (Amazon Prime) is an example of the kind of TV that would not look out of place on the big screen.
The show, lauded for tackling issues of identity and the institutions and constructions within which the notion is created, launched its third series this week as Soloway continues to push and contort boundaries as we know them, exploring gender fluidity, religion and existentialism through beautifully shot, human moments.
Throughout the show, we, as viewers are taken into university classrooms, as we follow Ali’s journey through academia as she takes and leads classes on gender studies, simultaneously presenting the viewing with these issues discussed in class. However, the exploration of academic issues never comes across as “preachy” or heavy-handed, the characters are too three-dimensional, too imperfect for this and each of them have a distinct role to play, living out their own self-centered dramas.
Up until now, Ali’s journey has been the most interesting to me, particularly as we see her exploring theories of inherited trauma or “epigenetics” through her studies. These theories are popular in modern Jewish thought regarding people with relatives who were in the Holocaust, and visits the idea that trauma can be passed down through DNA. In this way, Ali helps us to explore the complexity of the Pfefferman family’s 21st century anxieties. As a former German student of post-Holocaust literature and film, I found this fascinating as it showed the possibilities of popular culture’s ability to engage with these ideas, usually reserved for “weightier” media, such as film and literature, rather than a fictional television series.
However, in season three Soloway’s focus turns away from this particular route, as flashbacks are not threaded through the entirety of the season, as is the case with season two. Season three seems a little looser and a little less tidy, which fits the family’s own struggles as they search for solutions to unanswerable questions (Will everything be ok? What is happiness? What is spirituality?). Yet the issues surrounding their Jewish identity do remain present, if only buried a little deeper.
Rather than occuring through the series, Soloway instead spends time jumping forwards and backwards in time within one eposide in particular, Episode 8, If I were a bell. In this episode, as in reoccurring scenes throughout the previous seasons, Gaby Hoffman plays not only Ali Pfefferman, but also Ali’s grandmother in her youth.
I was struck by one particular scene in this episode, when we see the grandmother returning to the family house and Ali’s mother (therefore Ali Pfefferman’s great-grandmother) winces as she hears the sound of the music the young Mort/Maura is playing and dancing to in the shelter below, dressed in a beautiful pink dress. Importantly, the sound is carried above ground through the channel of a small chimney (an ever-present motif in Holocaust literature and culture). Small yet heavy moments like these are paramount to the success of the series, as they create a narrative between moments of history and the identities of the present day, presenting us with the idea that the Pfefferman family almost transcend their 21st century issues and introducing academic theories surrounding that of Postmemory and inherited trauma.
Postmemory: “The relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to constitute memories in their own right.” – Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” Poetics Today, v. 29 #1, Spring 2008, 103.
The inclusion of these themes, within a genuinely funny and pleasant binge-watchable television show is an indication of how far television has come. Less of us are sitting down with the remote each night in what we may think of as “traditional TV viewing” and this shift seems to have done something tangible to the content being produced. Themes and issues which are normally reserved for the big screen are discussed and explored with increasing frequency within television and are done remarkably well, as we see in shows such as Orange is The New Black, which use a popularist form to probe established structures and ideas of social justice.
These programmes are reacting to contemporary issues and they’re thinking fast. Transparent is an example of a show which presents us with material that is highly intelligent, yet accessible and entertaining. One genius piece of evidence for this is in the surreal sort of meta-moment in season three where we see a cameo from Caitlin Jenner, a symbol of the current discussion of trans rights within popular culture (in particular in response to the discussion of wealth and privilege).
Indie films are often seen as the form within which these kind of moments and discussions take place, however I can’t help feeling that this kind of television is beginning to overtake them. These Indie-type films often present these types of issues as “quirky” and it seems clear that the 90ish minutes in which the action must play out constricts the ability of the films to fully explore them. Yet the time advantages present within a TV series does not seem to be encouraging “traditional TV” (BBC/ITV etc) to create the same kind of shows. These new “non-traditional” forms of television, provided to us by streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix are clearly doing something different.
Is the golden age of “traditional” television coming to an end? Amazon and Netflix’s subscription charges seem to be providing the channels with more freedom in their content, they are blurring the lines of previously considered distinctions between high and low culture, while being able to avoid the incessant debates over “popularism” that the BBC is forever embroiled in, the whole time reaching an extremely wide audience.
I’m no marketing/commissioning expert, but it seems undeniable that a shift has occurred, increasing the quality and depth to what consumers now have access to, and Soloway’s Transparent is one of those programmes spearheading the change.
The revolution may not be televised, but perhaps it will be streamed?