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.
Transparent is the story of an L.A. Jewish family based on the life of its creator Jill Soloway. The character that acts as Soloway’s proxy on the show is Ali Pfefferman. Ali Pfefferman, it turns out, is a sociopath. I realize that’s a strange thing to say, considering that Ali is the character one would expect Soloway to give a more sympathetic view of, and because the word sociopath isn’t really a recognized term in the world of mental health anymore, but it’s a very convenient way to classify someone who behaves in the way that she does. She doesn’t just have some anti-social traits, her presence actively damages the society she lives in. The family at the show’s centre is filled with awful people who possess varying degrees of crappy personalities, but at least you can understand what motivates their actions. Sure, there is a listlessness to all of them, moving from interest to interest, not truly knowing what they want out of life and making terrible decisions along the way, but within those moments where they have to make a decision, those crucial little pockets of time, you can understand and even relate to what motivates them. That is not the case with Ali. It gradually becomes clear what lies at the heart of her actions throughout the series, but it’s really difficult to accept as it becomes more and more obvious. One of the central questions of the show is “what does Ali want” and I’d imagine that’s a result of Soloway’s own indecision at this stage in her life, but on Transparent, as it becomes more and more obvious what Ali wants, you just don’t want to accept it. After watching every episode of this show, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing that Ali really wants is to cause other people to suffer, whether she’s consciously aware of it or not, that seems to be what truly motivates her actions.