When people reference shows starring (purposely written) horrible people, they inevitably bring up the Always Sunny in Philadelphia gang. The Reynolds family (along with Mac and Charlie), are self-centred, egotistical, and emotionally immature nuisances who often star in episodes where they take their unpleasantness into the outside world, damage the lives of the people they interact with, then get rejected and forced to find comfort in the awful safe-space that is the bar that they own. On Transparent, much of the same thing happens with the Pfeffermans, a family very much like the Reynolds, but with the only difference being that their awful actions have lasting negative repercussions on the people around them and themselves. While Almost Sunny operates on a cartoon logic of everything more or less reverting to how things were before by the start of the next episode, Transparent forces its narcissistic characters to sit with their bad decisions for the remainder of their sad and empty lives. The comedic fallout of their actions are so dark at times that it almost veers into dramatic territory, but the heightened nature of everything reminds the audience to laugh at what has transpired. It’s shocking how little punches this show pulls, even with its transgender star Maura Pfefferman, who also happens to be a mostly awful person. Much like Frank Reynolds on Always Sunny, much of her role seems to be as the one financing the bizarre behaviour her kids seem to get into, and the fact that the show can make us feel be both sympathetic and angry towards her is a grand feat. Once again like Frank, she has a kid that is an honest to God sociopath, but less in the popcultural serial killer sense and more in the toxic presence that routinely hurts those close to her. Ali, along with her two siblings Josh and Sarah, are really who are at the centre of the show despite it being ostensibly about Maura coming out as transgender. Those three siblings are the beating rotten heart of this show.
Similar to Always Sunny, Transparent counterbalances the terrible antics of its lead characters with jaunty, old-timey tunes, and an ironically wholesome sounding title sequence. These are both supposed to be shows following people that you would expect to be happy yet aren’t, that go on to make poor decision after poor decision and the musical choices underline that perfectly. From Josh continually treating his fiance like garbage, to Sarah suddenly calling off her marriage at the wedding reception, to Ali’s every action, the Pfefferman’s are like a hurricane that devour everyone unfortunate enough to get within their orbit. They’re also pretty damn hilarious because of it. One example that sticks out in my mind of how these characters mix unbearable darkness and hilarity is the scene when Josh is confronted with the son he only recently realized he had (the product of his babysitter taking advantage of him during his adolescence, something he sees in a far more favourable light than he should). His son is being taken away by a different family, but you can tell he desperately does not want to go and until the moment right before he had to depart, everyone was acting as though irreversible events were leading to this inevitable conclusion. On the eleventh hour, Josh’s son puts his heart on the line and pleads with his father that he will absolutely stay if his Josh says that he wants him to, and Josh’s response to that is to sort of awkwardly shuffle things along for him to leave without really confronting either of their feelings directly. The scene was a cringe comic masterpiece, and it is where I recognized the show’s similarity to Always Sunny. It allowed me to retroactively realize scenes like the time the Pfefferman siblings embarked on a search for their missing Alzheimer’s stricken step-father only to find themselves sitting down, drinking, and gossiping about their transgender father were vintage Always Sunny.
Transparent is what happens when you take the premise of Always Sunny to its logical conclusion. Following bad people continuously making bad decisions, and then watching the darkly hilarious fallout. It could be the woman Sarah bailed on marrying last second ruining a pool party that the Pfeffermans were attending, or it could be Josh’s incensed ex-fiance finally telling him to screw off because he stopped being useful to achieving her goal of having children on top of being an insufferable little snot. There is almost this elegance to the terribleness of the Pfefferman siblings, and in the two seasons we’ve known them, the core rot in their personalities hasn’t really changed. Sure they’ve grown more accepting of their father’s trans identity, but their overwhelming narcissism and general unpleasantness remains unchanged. This is both the TV show most sympathetic to trans identity and also the one where its trans star yells homophobic slurs at partying gay men in a loud booming voice. It juxtaposes ostensible good will with very realistic depictions of hollowed out and broken individuals, and it does so to great comedic effect because of their disastrous interactions with other people. Because these disasters don’t disappear the very next episode, but instead sit and marinate with emotionally stunted narcissists that boldly refuse to change or meaningfully reflect on their actions, the show can very easily be seen as this darker, more serialized Always Sunny in Philadelphia, strangely featuring characters that are arguably even more detestable in many regards (because they happen to be far more intelligent on Transparent). It’s hilarious and creepy hearing Dennis Reynolds talking about getting his “tools”, but because things are more grounded in reality with the Pfefferman’s, Ali casually ruining the lives of her friends and family for no apparent reason is even more chilling. Both shows are fascinating in their own right, and while much has been said of Always Sunny‘s fantastically mean-spirited characters, not enough is said of the darkly comedic nature of Transparent‘s bleak little upper middle class Jewish family.
Quote of the Day:
“Man on the land!”
– Maura Pfefferman, Transparent.