This show is gorgeous. It moved me in ways I never expected. This show is about family. It’s about people. It’s about expectations and the contracts we make that are never spoken of and what happens when we break those contracts. It’s about love and getting it wrong and getting it right and showing up either way. It’s about how we see each other, our lives, and ourselves, and how we think that’s the truth, until the moment we see it differently, (and then we think that’s the truth). At the center, it’s about a trans woman’s transition from the man everyone has always known her to be to the woman she’s always been.
Sarah: I hope I’m not ruining the kids with all this crazy stuff.
Maura: Remember our crazy stuff?
Sarah: Yeah. It’s all blended in with the good stuff.
Jeffrey Tambor is Maura and you cannot take your eyes off him in this role. We meet her as she’s trying to work up the nerve to tell her three grown kids, and then the world. We meet her when she is absolutely done pretending to be a man.
So we see her in many different stages and looks–there are lots of flashbacks, but also she is right in it; one moment stretching herself, the next pulling it back in–whether still dressed as a man or not–she’s trying different things on. Mr. Tambor brings both a timidity and a power to Maura. We see the oddness that has been the former Mr. Pfefferman–the oddness only she has been able to put her finger on. There is always a restraint about her. I’ve never seen an actor give me so much internal life. She’s always measured about what she says and does, and how she says and does it; she’s always watching everyone watch her; and most of all, she’s always in a new moment of discovering just how restricted she is, and evaluating that quality on the spot, and either continuing with it or deciding, in that very moment, to lift the restriction. All of this, constantly, every moment. And at the same time, she’s very expressed; her affection for her kids; her opinions. It takes a master actor to bring all this internal churning, and with subtlety, and that is Jeffrey Tambor.
Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffman, partially channeling Rachel Griffiths) are her troubled, troubling kids. These are West Coast Jews, and there is a familiarity for me. Maura is 68. My parents are/were 7-10 years older, Jewish, and dad was a bit of a hippie. The kids kinda sorta resemble my siblings and me. There is a beautiful way they all relate to music….this is as fine a television show about a Jewish family as I’ve seen since Zwick/Hershkowitz have had a series.
Maura makes a startling statement about her kids toward the end of the pilot, providing a hell of an insight into them–and into her relationship with them. But it’s not the absolute truth either, because there ain’t no such thing. Every one of them is lovable and hateful and pitiful and annoying and delightful and clueless and brilliant. You know, like people are. As the season moves, you see them each go through huge disruptions to their romantic/relationship/sex lives. Is it a coincidence? A response? Is this family just in a vortex right now? Or is some of it not really that different for them….it may well be that for some of them, tumult and drama is ongoing. More on this, I suppose, as the series develops.
Judith Light is a wonder as Maura’s ex-wife Shelly, taking a character who at first appears to be a caricature of Jewish mother and grounding her in intelligence and love. As a Jewish matriarch, she is giving Tovah Feldshuh a run for her money.
It’s a wonderful first season, and I cannot wait to see this show ripen, especially Maura. In many ways, we know the least about her. She’s transitioning; we get some of the backstory about that. Because she is so internal, we know some of what she believes in and what she’s dealing with and some of how she feels, but there is so much more of her for us to discover–which, I suspect, will go just great with how much more of her there is for her to discover. The very fact that almost all she is right now is a transitioning trans woman, such that it dominates everything about her–and before that, she was a deeply closeted trans woman, living a life that was secrets and lies–is perhaps as big an imbalance as her gender; one that will be fascinating to see start to smooth out. In a way, we’re watching someone say “fuck you” to the world, and finally be herself. Or are we? She’s not a fuck-you kind of person, only now, she kind of is. Well here’s a thought–what is it like to have to say “fuck you” to the world in order to just be who you are? A lot more of us know the answer to that than you’d think, albeit at different levels, and for those who don’t, thank goodness for a show like this. Cheers to its success and visibility.
Now, just a bit about the brilliance and challenges regarding the casting of Jeffrey Tambor. First, he is visually perfect. There is just enough softness in some of his features, combined with–I mean let’s be straight here, this is not a super handsome man, and he makes an even less handsome woman. And he’s over six feet tall, and just large, (hearkening John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, only even he was slightly prettier, and much younger), and the effect is that her efforts not to look like a man trying to be a woman are exaggeratedly unsuccessful. The perfection is in how incredibly common this is. You’ve got a handful of drag queen types who just take to this shit and walk and talk and work it, but you’ve also got your fair share of women who look like men doing a bad job pretending to be women. He is nailing it.
But on the it’s-a-man-playing-Maura front, what happens next? We are at the very beginning. What would happen next would be hormone therapy and probably some cosmetic surgery. Some people do and some people don’t have the full-on gender reassignment surgery, (we’ve already met one character we know for certain has no intention of having that surgery), but either way, hormones are typically first order and with a face like Maura’s, there would be some nipping and tucking. I think it’s a safe assumption that Tambor will not be altering himself chemically or surgically for his art, SO WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY GONNA DO??
A curiosity for certain, but it’s the least of our worries. I know I’ll be watching the next season.