A TV show concerning the porous biological border separating man from woman could be poised to break through another rigidly binary barrier: the comedy and drama categories at the Emmy Awards.
The murky depths of transgender identity are plumbed brilliantly in the first season “Transparent,” which Amazon Prime made available in its 10-episode entirety this past weekend.
Because each episode lasts about a half-hour and contain elements of humor, it’s only natural to classify “Transparent” as a comedy. But just like its cross-dressing protagonist Morton/Maura Pfefferman, the series eludes easy categorization.
That’s due in large part to the actor who inhabits the Pfefferman character, a sixtysomething father who decides to go public with the secret he’s harbored his whole life: his desire to live as a woman.
If you know Jeffrey Tambor’s (pictured above, right) work from “Arrested Development” or “The Larry Sanders Show,” it may not come as any surprise that he is nothing short of a revelation in the lead part. But that’s where the confusion starts to come in.
When you take a ham like Tambor and a role that calls for frequent cross-dressing, the natural assumption might be that “Transparent” will traffic in sight gags and slapstick. Think “Tootsie”-style riffs mining the kind of comedy that comes from where makeup and moustaches collide.
But a few minutes into “Transparent” and you might find yourself forgetting about Tambor’s lipstick and marveling how fluidly his face registers such a range of emotions.
Turns out what the protagonist executive producer Jill Soloway has created for Tambor is not actually the kind of funny character he typically plays. To the contrary, Pfefferman is a very dramatic role heavy on pathos, indulging pretty minimally in the yuks typical of this kind of territory.
Which isn’t to say “Transparent” isn’t funny; it is, but the humor principally comes from the three adult children (Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker) whose already chaotic lives are accelerated into tailspins by their father’s life choice.
But at a core anchored by a deeply serious Tambor, “Transparent” feels more like a drama more likely to wring tears than laughs, though the ratio varies episode to episode.
Tambor is almost certainly going to be nominated for an Emmy. But the question is, should that be for a comedy or drama?
“Transparent” isn’t the first series to confound TV’s traditional taxonomy, as we saw at the last Emmy Awards when Netflix and Showtime entered hourlongs “Orange is the New Black” and “Shameless,” represented in the comedy categories. That they made the cut (“Orange” for outstanding comedy, “Shameless” star William H. Macy for lead actor in a comedy) only validated the notion that seems to get harder to ignore each year: separating comedies from dramas makes decreasingly little sense given the growing volume of shows that don’t seem squarely in either camp.
What would have really pounded that point home was if “Orange” in particular had won, which didn’t happen. But next year it will be “Transparent’s” turn to make an even bigger statement.
Forget becoming the first streaming TV series to win an Emmy in a major category. That’s cool, but what would be even cooler would be if “Transparent” could become the first half-hour series to get a nomination and/or win in a drama category.
Odds are that won’t happen for no other reason than the drama categories are always brutally competitive even without “Breaking Bad” in the mix in 2015. But Amazon couldn’t make a bolder statement about the utter artificiality of Emmy’s outmoded categories than to enter as a drama.
And who better to strike a blow for new ways of thinking than a show that demands the same be done of traditional understanding of gender.