Jeffrey Tambor’s Messy ‘Transparent’ Exit: How Should We Handle These Scandals?
Facing sexual-harassment allegations, the actor leaves the Amazon series in a huff as the industry and the media messily figure out how to handle a growing number of scandals.
As the entertainment industry navigates the rising tide of sexual-harassment allegations against a flood of actors and Hollywood players, it’s being forced to make dramatic decisions about the future of projects tarnished, made unsafe, or made untenable because of the involvement of those men.
Do networks and studios feverishly work to bail the water out of a sinking ship: suspend or fire the accused, recast roles, and soldier on? Or does the captain go down with his vessel, and cancel the project entirely?
We’ve seen both, as Hollywood figures out in real time the best way to handle things. But the case of Transparent and Jeffrey Tambor, which has been unfolding over the past week in the wake of allegations made against the actor, might be one of the most complicated.
Tambor, who won two Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Maura Pfefferman on the Amazon series, announced Sunday night that he will depart the show ahead of its already-announced fifth and final season.
The actor had been accused of inappropriate behavior and harassment by his former assistant, the transgender actress Van Barnes, and his co-star Trace Lysette, who claims he made sexually charged remarks and rubbed his body against her in a predatory way on set.
Lysette said Amazon should “remove the problem and let the show go on.” GLAAD supported the transgender actress. Transparent writer Our Lady J, who is also transgender, wrote in an Instagram post that “we cannot let trans content be taken down by a single cis man,” seemingly also encouraging Tambor’s departure for the sake of the production.
Tambor’s statement is unique among the growing number of apologies from accused actors, in that its tone was combative, hardly contrite, and doubles down on its denial of the allegations against him.
He said, “Playing Maura Pfefferman on Transparent has been one of the greatest privileges and creative experiences of my life. What has become clear over the past weeks, however, is that this is no longer the job I signed up for four years ago.”
Attributing his departure not to his own actions, which he disputes the characterization of, but instead to the toxic work environment the scandal might create, he went on: “I’ve already made clear my deep regret if any action of mine was ever misinterpreted by anyone as being aggressive, but the idea that I would deliberately harass anyone is simply and utterly untrue. Given the politicized atmosphere that seems to have afflicted our set, I don’t see how I can return to Transparent.”
Tambor’s exit is an intriguing and complicated test case when it comes to how the industry and the media respond to the spate of sexual-harassment allegations. What are we to make of his departure? Is it a victory? Is it hasty? Will it affect the quality of the show?
And in terms of the catalyst for his leaving—the allegations made against him—it raises questions about how we in the media react to these social media accusations. In an era of believe all women, does that extend to the media, where incredulity is held up as our biggest virtue? Or is reactionary justice for the often-silenced a higher virtue?
In some ways, Tambor’s departure is a surprise.
He is the titular star of Transparent—the literal trans parent whom the show’s inception centered around—and the series’ most recognizable face and spokesperson. Writing the character out of the show is initially shocking, and, for some, hard to imagine.
But in other ways, it is hardly a surprise at all.
Facing stern condemnation from the court of public opinion—and from the trans community that it is supposed to be lifting up, at that—Amazon really only had two options going forward: Cancel the show, or continue without Tambor.
Tambor’s exit, however, comes before an announced internal investigation concluded, or at least before its findings were reported.
This is not to make a judgment on the veracity of the statements by Lysette and by Barnes, but to note that they were made, like many accusations in recent weeks, on their personal social-media accounts and reported without being fact-checked or vetted. The impulse to believe them is crucial. And so is the impulse to investigate.
In his announcement, Tambor stresses again that “the idea I would deliberately harass anyone is simply and utterly untrue.” That assertion, too, requires investigation to confirm. But what is undeniable is that the truth does not matter when it comes to Tambor’s future on the show. He couldn’t possibly return to set without creating an obtrusive and toxic work environment—not to mention without sullying its legacy and its relationship to the trans community.
It’s a confusing and conflicting moment for a Transparent fan—for a Transparent fan who has done extensive interviews with the cast and creative team over the last four years, and for a Transparent fan steadfastly in support in the trans community speaking out against Tambor.
The easiest hurdle to get over is how the show could continue on without Maura Pfefferman. The show’s conceit has long been how Maura’s own journey to find herself triggered the same searching among her family.
Their arcs have become as vital as Maura’s, and a plot line in which Gaby Hoffman’s Ali begins questioning her own gender identity suggests that the show wouldn’t be left without a narrative thread exploring a trans or gender non-conforming experience. More, just as creator Jill Soloway launched Transparent after her own parent came out as transgender later in life, Ali’s journey should reflect the same personal intimacy; Soloway recently came out as gender non-binary.
There will be a mourning period for the character of Maura, but series continue all the time after marquee stars leave. Creatively, we truly believe the show could be fine.
But after having conducted hours of interviews over the years with Soloway, Tambor, and the cast of Transparent, including Lysette, it’s hard not to feel a little broken that this has happened. A scandal and fallout like this is at stark odds with the tenor of those conversations.
Actors elicit eye rolls all the time for their farcical assurance that TV and film sets are “like family,” but there was something different about the utopian atmosphere those involved with Transparent described.
Gaby Hoffman and Judith Light spoke through tears about the transformative experience of being on set. Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass monologued energetically about the safe space Soloway creates, including a ritual called The Box, in which any member of production could unload emotionally about how they’re feeling that day.
Everyone spoke about how they’ll be forever changed from working on a set that values people’s identities and feelings, and, by the way, employs more transgender people than any other production in the industry.
It was actually Lysette and her Transparent co-star, transgender actress Alexandra Billings, who brought me back down to earth during an interview this last year in which I asked about that idyllic experience everyone else portrays.
I recounted how simultaneously shaken and emboldened the rest of the cast was while working on the show after Trump’s election. “It’s different for them,” Billings said. “They’re looking at our experience from the outside. We don’t have to join the revolution. We are the fucking revolution. We’re in the center of it.”
“‘Thanks for stepping up, guys! It’s been great.’ That’s how I feel about it,” Lysette echoed. “Maybe that’s the silver lining: There’s been this mass awakening. Cis people are more conscious and awake.”
Throughout my many conversations with Tambor, he’s spoken both about the responsibility he’s felt playing Maura, the ways in which the experience has changed his life, and his hopes for the future of the trans community.
Yet his statement suggesting that the set has been “afflicted” by a “politicized atmosphere” in the aftermath of Lysette’s allegations swaths his previous earnestness with ignorance and bitterness. As Time’s Daniel D’Addario observed on Twitter, it suggests “he didn’t really get the show’s responsibility as a pathbreaker, or why it mattered to many.”
By devaluing how and why the accusations against him complicate not only the show’s mission, but the production’s mission as an employer, he is misunderstanding the very role he had in making history.
Still, given the speed at which action is demanded today, Tambor stepping down and the show continuing on without him is possibly the best outcome of a terrible situation.
The cruel irony to all of these scandals is that innocent bystanders’ jobs are frequently made collateral damage in the fallout. You might have seen the statistic going around about how much it would cost the city of Baltimore to shut down production of House of Cards, in terms of not only revenue to the city but the number of jobs.
While Transparent reaps some of Amazon’s highest accolades and the lion’s share of its awards attention, it’s by no means the streaming service’s most popular show. Canceling it wouldn’t destroy Amazon in terms of viewership, but the show’s impact transcends that, both in terms of the spectrum of LGBTQ diversity the production employs and the vital need for the stories it tells.
There seems to be extra poignancy in the fact that we’re writing about this on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, amplifying the need for safe spaces, visibility, and justice. It bears repeating what Our Lady J wrote, that “we cannot let trans content be taken down by a single cis man.”
This time, at least as it stands now, the scrambling to address the alleged actions against a single cis man hasn’t led to that. The meaningfulness of a series like Transparent gets to continue. But as the industry continues to grapple with how to handle these scandals and respond to public pressure, and we as journalists struggle with how to cover them, the threat remains that next time the outcome won’t be so just.