This week, Amazon surprised with a little Cyber Monday gift to all of us. It made the Season 2 premiere of its Emmy-winning series Transparent available for streaming, more than a week before the critically minted series was scheduled to debut in full on the site.
In other words, it whetted the appetite of fans of the series—and of good entertainment—with a preview of what TV critics have been quietly whispering for a few weeks now: a second season of an already spectacular and profoundly imperative television series that is, if possible, even better than the first.
Last year, Transparent galvanized pop culture around a movement that built from a rousing rumble and erupted into a critical call to arms: the movement for transgender civil rights and acceptance.
The series introduced us to Mort Pfefferman, played so delicately by Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor, the patriarch of an endearingly caustic Los Angeles family who has come to a simple conclusion in his middle age: It was time to live her authentic life, as Maura.
A searing question, haunting in its universality despite the very particular application in this case, is asked: Will you still love me if…?
It’s a question that creator Jill Soloway—a veteran already of provoking television, having served as co-executive producer on Six Feet Under—felt very personally. Her father came out to her as transgender four years ago. When she accepted the Emmy Award for Best Directing in a Comedy Series for her work on Transparent last fall, she dedicated it to her “Moppa.”
And it was with that personal fire lit in her that she used the rest of her speech to make her siren call.
“We don’t have a trans tipping point,” she said, referring to the laudatory pats on the back many members of the media have been giving themselves for embracing her show, performers like Laverne Cox, and visible trans figureheads like Caitlyn Jenner. “We have a trans civil rights problem,” she said, referring to the spate of killings and continued discrimination of trans people—the work still left to be done.
It’s with that in mind that Season 2 of Transparent, as many of has feverishly took in this week, expands its scope.
No longer is the series a singular portrayal of a family’s loving embrace of a trans family member, but a more nuanced portrayal of a family reeling from a life-changing shift in their dynamic, all while dealing with their own shit, too, and wondering, “Will you still love me if…?”
Now that the premiere is live, we chatted with Soloway about the pressures of living up to the first season and the watershed cultural moment it played a part in ushering in. We also grilled her on pulling off that fantastic and heartbreaking wedding in the premiere, the significance of her Emmy speech, and what to expect in terms of portraying a fuller spectrum of the trans community in Season Two.
What pressure is there going into Season 2 of a show that had such a response not just as a TV show, but as a cultural moment?
I think the cultural moment, the zeitgeist, the trends, the civil rights movement…to have Caitlyn Jenner come out and have the world understand on a large scale what it means for a patriarch to transition, whether or not they’ve seen our show, allows us a lot of freedom because we’re not having to explain that story anymore.
That’s a great point. Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has done a lot of that work for you.
We’re not having to do Trans 101. We’re not having to educate people on a level. I remember I was in the airport and I was traveling and one of the security guards at customs said, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I’m at a TV festival.’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a TV creator.’ ‘What’s your show about?’ ‘A show about a family in which the dad comes out as transgender.’ And the guy said, ‘Like Caitlyn Jenner. Like Bruce Jenner.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah! Right!’ Like you know the story now. Everybody knows the story, so now we get to just concentrate on making great television and letting the trans-ness be woven in and emanate out and be part of the fabric of this family and this show, but really be able to just have the creative freedom to tell our most personal stories.
Season 2 has much more of an ensemble focus than Season 1. The theme of “Will you still love me?” evolves to apply outside of Maura to reverberate with the Pfefferman children and Shelly. How did you come to the realization that Season 2 should expand in that way?
It just really, in some ways, kind of writes itself. These characters are so real to me. They’re more real than the actors. When I see Jeffrey, I kind of don’t know who he is, you know? I’m more comfortable with Maura. And the kids are like siblings. Everyone really seems like a real family. And so as a writer in the writers’ room we just kind of channel. We just sort of listen, you know? We all gather around this feeling of what does this family want? I don’t really impose, “OK, we’re going to do this this season.” We’re all sort of channeling. And then we just use the creative freedom that we’re getting from Amazon to go, “What do I really want to do?”
What did you want to do with the premiere, that wedding episode?
So when you talk about that wedding episode, I saw a movie called Force Majeur. I wanted to make a movie like Force Majeur that took place at a resort. I had all the department heads watch Force Majeur and I said look at how the resort is a character and let’s do something with the wardrobe so that we’re really looking at white against the desert. We’re really looking at the parched drought of California and the white fantasy against the brown. Normally if you’re the creator of a TV show and you go see a movie like Force Majeur and you go, “I want to make something just like this,” you have to wait until the show is done and then go, “Now I’ll make my movie.” Because of them saying “What do you want to do next? Go!” I was able to say episode two of Season 1 is going to be its own short film. And I’m going to get an opportunity to do a little tribute to Force Majeur and play with my abilities and learn, can I shoot something like that?
Even just the opening scene of the photographer wrangling the family together is a short film.
Their bickering, their comfort with each other, their frenzied energy. The specificity of each character’s behavior and then the chemistry between them is almost unbelievable. As a creator, what is it like to watch that come together?
I think of it as a feminine or feminist style of leadership, a feminist style of directing, where I literally feel more like I create the safe space, which is, “OK, let’s bring in the costumes and the cool environment and let’s throw this wedding.” And I shoot it a little more like a documentary, where I’m not actually attempting to pull of certain things within shots. I’m going, “What happens if? What happens if? What happens if?” And so the beginning of that episode, that was a total surprise all the way down to the person who is the photographer misgendering Maura, which is not in the script.
That wasn’t? The actor really accidentally called her, “Sir?”
Yep. Wasn’t in the script.
It’s so perfect.
It’s so perfect. And it comes at a climactic moment in a particular take where the fact that we’re able to stay in the take for five minutes…
Jeffrey reacts perfectly.
Perfectly. [Giggles.] For me as a filmmaker, besides the fact that there were, what, 10 people up there improvising and it was working, the fact that 10 people walk off and now 20 people walk on and the shot still holds and the story still holds, what does that feel like? I’m sitting there at the monitor, my mouth is hanging open. I’m laughing. Sometimes I’m crying because I can’t believe it. I’m just going, yeah, I can’t fucking believe it. I can’t fucking believe it. That’s what it feels like.
Let’s talk briefly about the Emmys. You won the Emmy and got to go on stage on TV and say we have a trans civil right problem. What was it like to not just soak in the admiration for your work at that moment, but also be able to publicize a situation that I think people don’t realize—or maybe think by handing you a trophy is going to go away?
Oddly it’s this feeling of joy that comes with the responsibility. It’s the same thing. We go to work, there’s a responsibility to make the world a better place. We go to an awards show, there’s a responsibility to use my 30 seconds wisely. As opposed to, I think, the general ethos for a showrunner would be—look, if you want to get up there and say, “Ahh! I never expected this. I don’t have my notes…” That’s sort of the cool way to be, right? Pretend like you never expected it. Pretend like you’re unprepared. Pretend like you don’t deserve it. These are all totally reasonable, hip ways to respond to awards.
But you didn’t do that.
Because of the civil rights movement, I’m forced to say I’m not going to waste a 30-second-long audience with the entire planet when there’s still so much work to be done. That actually is a bit of a mood lifter. I’m not allowed to be nervous. It’s not about me! It’s not about me. It’s not about my hair. It’s not about my clothes. It’s not about how I look or how I act. It’s about getting it right for the trans community and getting it right for people who haven’t seen the show and can potentially come to the show and understand that there is a real civil rights movement. So that’s enjoyable for me. It takes the pressure off.
The responsibility actually relieves the pressure. Wow.
Same thing with work. We don’t go to work thinking, “Ugh, work. We have to get it right for Amazon. We have to sell product.” We go, “We are in this really weird, magical place where the work we’re doing is resonating beyond ‘great TV show.’”
Does it get exhausting? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but does it get to be a burden to have that much on shoulders?
It’s the opposite. Because it’s not about anything except for allowing that to come through. Getting out of the way of it. It actually feels a little bit like a spiritual thing. The kinds of things that people normally attach to: you gotta do it fast, we’re running out of time, we’re running out of money, we’re running out of light, it better be good, it better be fast. All of those things get in the way of going with the flow, and we know that the flow is where is at it’s for us.
There’s that comic-book cliché, “With great power comes great responsibility.” With the show getting the accolades, becoming this beacon of a movement, it has more power. Do you feel more responsibility, maybe to show a broader spectrum of the trans community? There are storylines about gender reassignment and sexuality in Season 2.
Yes, there are. What else? Well we found ourselves very accidentally journeying to Berlin in 1930 right before the Holocaust, and through our research realizing that a lot of the information that we have about trans folk and hormones, it was already all being researched by somebody named Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and a place called the Institute for Sexual Research in the ’30s in Berlin. And people like Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, she was hanging out at the institute.
(Ed. Note: Parts of Season 2 of Transparent includes flashbacks to 1930s Germany.)
It’s crazy to think of this so-called hot-button issue being something that was actually talked about all those decades ago.
A lot of the conversations we’re having right now were already being had, but were obviously snuffed out and set back because of World War II. So I’m so excited for people to watch those parts of the show and go, “Well, this isn’t real. There’s no way there could’ve been a trans person in 1930. Because this is a brand new thing, right?” No. This has been going on forever. Trans people have been around since the beginning of time. Trans people are shamed or kept from their rights by a culture that doesn’t understand them. But this has been around forever. I love the idea that people are going to Google, “Oh, wow, this character Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld was real, this institute was real.” There were trans people living in Berlin in the ’30s. They were experimenting with what hormones could do in terms of gender. It’s all been happening. So I’m thrilled that we can introduce people to all this new stuff, which is old stuff.