The Cult of the Showrunner- Jill Soloway
As every pop culture or television publication releases their "Best of 2014" TV lists, feel free to disregard any that don't have Transparent on them. Jill Soloway's Transparent is about a family struggling with issues of queerness, intimacy, and identity when patriarch Mort Pfefferman comes out as being a transgender woman. When reading New York Times' Magazine article "Can Jill Soloway Do Justice to the Trans Movement?" I was stuck in particular by a section describing Jill Soloway's approach to creating the show.
Soloway made changes to the physical filming space itself, by taping over male/female signs for the bathroom (inspired by her experience at the Glaad awards). Soloway wanted "her set to be different from the rest of the world, a sanctuary where all are welcome." On set, Soloway has enacted a “transfirmative action program,” favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over non-transgender ones. According to reporter Taffy Brodesser-Akner, "Soloway wanted to create a set on which inclusivity was more than a buzzword, a place where no one should ever feel that they are part of a majority — not even the majority, whoever that might be on a particular day."
One of the first people hired was trans-identified director Rhys Ernst, who says “The job’s been very multi-faceted as trans consultants but we've been the liaisons to the whole trans and queer community. We bring in a lot of people from the community to have speaking roles on the show, to be extras, to be crew... we have about 12 speaking parts for trans actors.”
Another interesting change is how Soloway built her writers' room "to favor people who didn't have too much TV experience." More tellingly, "she didn't want people who had to unlearn the traditional way that shows were run, which she describes as “militaristic” (filled with commands like “Shoot!” “Cut!” “Action!” she explained, plus all that yelling). She wanted to replace it with what she called “a more feminine approach” to direction. She hired a novelist she liked and met at a retreat (who had been working at a grocery store), and a few screenwriters too, including her former assistant. She hired her sister, Faith. She also hired two full-time transgender consultants to steer her away from any pitfalls."
It is difficult to tease out exactly how this approach to storytelling reflects itself in the finished ten episodes. Certainly, the intimacy of the safe space created on set is apparent in how comfortable the actors seem with each other and with their characters. Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Maura, says about Soloway, “She’s the first director of note in my career who’s ever come up to me and said: ‘Hey, guys, slow it down. Take your time.” This deliberate slowing down of pace is integral to the show, which can be languorous at times but never dull. The use of flashbacks, including an entire episode set twenty years ago, underlines the slow passage of time, especially when it comes to change.
The Pfefferman family feels just like your family, and anyone with siblings will recognize the mixture of exasperation, resentment, love, and affection that twins Ali and Josh (Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass), and elder sister Sarah (Amy Landecker) have for one another. The show’s romantic cinematography, soft lighting and evocative perspective shots, draw us into their world, invite us to sit with Maura and Divine or watch Josh and Raquel’s (the incomparable Kathryn Hahn) relationship bloom. All the characters are sympathetic and nuanced. The addition of the show’s first trans writer, singer-songwriter Our Lady J, to the show’s second season is an indication that Soloway continues to be dedicated to inclusivity.
In response to criticism over the casting of Tambor (a cis-gender straight man) to play Maura, Soloway said:
The show would not have evolved into what it is without Jeffrey’s warmth and beauty, but I now understand that it is my responsibility to use the space Jeffrey helped me cultivate to further trans representation as much as possible. The show’s fans teach me every day how important this is, and I am incorporating these observations in any way I can that might help the show to reach its full potential.
I can't think of any showrunner in recent history with such an inclusive approach to storytelling. In contrast, David Chase and Matthew Weiner, showrunners of the Sopranos and Mad Men respectively, are notorious for being dictator-like on set. But that’s for next time.
The first season of Transparent is available on Amazon Prime. It should be mandatory viewing this holiday season, especially for humans with hearts.