Genre-bending the Jewish Mother in Transparent

Jill Soloway’s Amazon-streaming series Transparent (2014-) has been roundly praised for its bold portrayal of sexuality in all its polymorphous complexity, beginning with its titular trans-parent Mort/Maura (a.k.a “Moppa,” brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor). The series can now add to its accolades a bravura Season 3 finale that expands not only this singular dramedy’s progressive parameters but those of Jewish media representation altogether.

An important corollary to the series gender-bending premise, elaborated in a Season 2 flashback strand, is Maura’s side of the family’s Holocaust survival background and intimate connection to Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering sexual experimentation in Weimar-era Berlin. Less attention has been paid, in the series and discourse surrounding it, to the straightest, and most Jewish, member of the Pfefferman family, Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (brilliantly played by the non-Jewish Judith Light). Season 3 redresses that elision with a bang.

Few characters in postmodern American culture have been treated with more unmitigated scorn than the Jewish Mother. A product of rampant Jewish assimilation in the post-World War II period and popularized by Jewish male writers, notably Herman Wouk, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen, the Jewish Mother became the prime repository of proverbial Jewish angst and guilt melded with postwar American acquisitiveness. Her character was invariably scapegoated as gratingly loud and obnoxiously clingy, as excessively coddling her sons, and as squelching all her children’s creative aspirations in a relentless push for material success and social status. This coarse construction, however, was a gross transmogrification of the previous generation’s more sympathetic maternal archetype, the Yiddishe Momme: a recent European immigrant whose overbearing concern for her American-born progeny was leavened with Old World warmth and nurturance. The difference between the two types, and paradigm shift from one to the other, is emblematically displayed in the chief matriarchs of two unrelated but like-titled sitcoms, The Goldbergs: the earlier, 1949-56 show (based on a prewar radio series) features a classic Yiddishe Momme, Molly Goldberg (played by the show’s creator, Gertude Berg); the ongoing show (2013-) features a stereotypical Jewish Mother, Beverly Goldberg (played by the non-Jewish Wendi McLendon-Covey).

Transparent’s Shelly Pfefferman, up to the third-season finale, is only a few degrees shy of the standard Jewish Mother caricature: nasal voice, noodgy manner, material concerns, immature adult children (for which hyper-self-obsessed Maura clearly shares the blame). The grist for the miraculous shift in Shelly’s persona achieved in the finale is subtly suggested in an earlier flashback episode, which shows how the performative chops she possessed as a young girl were stunted by her sexual molestation by a school teacher.

In the season finale, after a break-up with her post-Maura partner Buzz (Richard Masur), Shelly takes Maura and the children on a Passover-period ocean cruise. She had hoped the vacation and confined setting might help bring the emotionally and physically fragmented Pfeffermans together, but the Vegas Strip-like ambience of the cruise ship only fissures the family further. Shelly’s uniquely alienated status is emphasized in her being given a room a deck above the others’ cabins, though the separation is cushioned by the luxuriousness of her suite and a personal valet (Tom Lenk)—“the the gay who comes with the room.” With Trevor’s encouragement, and piano accompaniment, Shelly plans a performance in the cruise ship’s night club of the one-woman show, titled “To Shell and Back,” initially inspired and co-produced by Buzz but now revised to reflect something more personal, and profound.

The build-up to the performance is crucial. At a makeshift Pfefferman Seder, a last-ditch effort at family reconciliation that only underscores their dysfunction, Shelly expresses her own special sense of dislocation—one that resonates, as odd woman out, with the series’ history and  the Jewish Mother writ large. “I’m not at home in this family,” she begins her harangue, and ends with a request that they at least try to attend her show that evening: “If you want to hear my story, I want my story to be heard by you.”

And it’s a doozy. A far cry from the soppy, slapdash version of “To Shell and Back” she performed in earlier episodes, this version is poignant, perceptive, and fully realized, giving us an entirely new (and radically improved) impression of Shelly. She begins with a spoken prologue that references her childhood molestation—“Something happened to me that made me forget who I really was; I stopped growing in every sense of the word”—and links her traumatic experience to Maura’s transgender identity—“I have always been drawn to men who wanted to live in the darkness of a secret.”

Then comes the song. Its refrain combines hand gestures with an ambivalent but ultimately triumphant message: “I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one giving . . . a high five!” The upshot, similar to Maura, who was forced to forego sex reassignment surgery because of a heart condition and who exchanged tight-fitting feminine shapewear on the cruise for hang-loose unisex attire, is that Shelly has finally come out of her—and the Jewish Mother’s—shell. Moreover, in the realization that Maura is not the only member of the Pfefferman family to undergo trans-parenting, her coming out enables ours as well, through a keener appreciation of the damage wrought by demeaning stereotypes—to victim and perpetrator alike.

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Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA and Cal-State LA and has written or edited eight books, most recently From Shtetl to Stardom: Jews and Hollywood.

Cat’s Paws and Chekhov’s Gun: Feline and Foot Symbolism in “The Night Of”

Deserved praise has been heaped on Steve Zaillian and Richard Price’s just-completed HBO mini-series The Night Of (based on the 2008-09 British series Criminal Justice) for its rich texture, attention to detail and social sensitivity toward New York’s Muslim community (if perhaps less so toward its black community). Two of the series’ prominent supporting players, the male calico cat (played by Bam Bam) found at the murder scene and defense attorney Jack Stone’s (John Turturro) eczema-plagued feet, also have received kudos for their fleshing out character and offering comic relief from the show’s bleak portrayal of inner-city life. Perhaps because they played no obvious role in the main murder mystery plot, however, the cat’s and feet’s contribution to the show’s layered symbolism has slipped under the radar. Continue reading “Cat’s Paws and Chekhov’s Gun: Feline and Foot Symbolism in “The Night Of”” »

Able Was I Ere I Saw “Fargo”: A Palindromic Reading of Season Two of the FX Series

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In a new-millennial era awash in boldly original TV, few shows have been as adventuresome, in style and content, as Noah Hawley’s anthology dramedy Fargo, which just concluded its second semi-autonomous season. “Semi” is key here, for although nominally a 1979-set prequel to Season One’s 2006 progenitor, with the latter’s retired sheriff still battling ultra-violent crime in the same forbidding Minne-kota terrain, Season Two plays by substantially different rules, to astonishingly inventive ends.

Upping the ante on the 1996 Coen brothers film’s “true story” conceit (Joel and Ethan executive produce the TV version), Season Two opens on a movie set of a mock Ronald Reagan cavalry-and-Indian western, with a lone brave standing amid the carnage of a recent battle. The anachronistic reference to the soon-to-be 40th President, while nodding to Ronnie’s Hollywood-to-Washington career leap, also establishes a political backdrop and generic analogue to the show’s kill or be killed, survival of the fittest scenario.

Season Two’s cat-and-mouse game with the audience is reinforced throughout. When the seemingly nondescript sedan that literally sets the story in motion has a hood in front and motor in back, it takes a web search for the non-car buff to determine its make as the once promising, now defunct Tucker. And when a bungling police detective (Keir O’Donnell) disses the good-guy sheriff (Patrick Wilson)—“You started out as Gary Cooper and now you’re Betty LaPlage”—only a web search can disclose that LaPlage was Reagan’s faux co-star in the season-opening mock western. Not even Google can divine the motivation behind Native American Hanzee’s (Zahn McClarnon) seemingly indiscriminate killing spree, which, as a one-off narrator (Martin Freeman) informs us with satirical glee, has befuddled “historians” ever since. What comes to the cinematically informed viewer’s rescue is Hanzee’s kinship with the even more maniacal Indian murderer Anton Chigurth (Javier Bardem) in the Coen brothers’ 2007 neo-western No Country for Old Men, where Chigurth’s only plausible inducement to mass murder, as Season Two’s narrator says is a possible one for Hanzee, is retribution for his people’s genocide.

Esoteric allusions are far from the series’ only allure. Grounded in a late-70s “malaise” that eerily forebodes post-9/11 High Anxiety, Season Two uncannily captures an America coming apart at the seams thematically, and supports the societal implosion stylistically via a wildly innovative split-screen technique and radically eclectic music track that would make la nouvelle vague proud. The splintered aesthetic matches the fractured narrative, which gyrates among a football roster of main characters and a plethora of plot-lines, all emanating from a hit-and-run accident and cross-regional mob warfare and culminating in killing fields redolent of those left behind in Southeast Asia and staged for the Reagan western.

The series ends, as did Season One, on a superficially soft note, with the good sheriff and his family safe and sound (as we knew at least he and his daughter would have to be, per their Season One reincarnation). If the devastation they barely survived weren’t damper enough, however, the sheriff’s wife’s (Cristin Miloti) terminal cancer and one of the warring mobs remaining intact leaves a gaping hole in the happy ending. As does the finale’s title: “Palindrome.”

Referring to words or phrases spelled the same forward and backward, palindromic lore has its own canon, with perhaps the most revered example being: “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Beyond alluding to Emperor Bonaparte’s island exile, from which he escaped only to be conclusively defeated at Waterloo and terminally exiled at the island of Saint Helena, the Napoleonic palindrome clearly has metaphorical applications, including to a pair of prominent characters in Season Two of Fargo. Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), who has relished his role in the field as chief enforcer for the Kansas City mob and lived to tell the tale, is “rewarded” for his exploits with an accountant’s job at the gang’s KC headquarters. Although organized crime’s paradigm shift from body counts to numbers-crunching also deliciously doubles as a paean to Reagan era neo-liberalism, for the flamboyant, free-wheeling Milligan, who in a previous scene had deemed himself “King” before offing his latest victim, being stuck behind a desk in a high-rise cubby-hole is indeed tantamount to an emperor’s exile.

Small-time beautician Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), who bumbled her way into the mob wars literally by accident (it was her Tucker that abetted the hit-and-run), faces actual court-ordered exile for her crimes at series end. But the kicker is the ditzy wish she blurts on her way into custody: to be sent to Alcatraz Island in her dreamland California, “Where I can look out onto the ocean and maybe see a pelican.”

Whether either Milligan or Blumquist escapes to see the light of day, a la their palindromic ancestor, must await what Fargo fans hope will be several more morbidly beautiful seasons to come.*

* “It’s morbid but beautiful” is a throwaway line in a Season Two episode

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Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, Cal-State LA, and Loyola Marymount. His latest book is Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles, with a second Silver Lake book and an anthology on Jews and Hollywood forthcoming.

 

‘Breaking Bad’: Product Placement and “Quality” Television

“Layered, like nachos. Exponential growth. That’s success, with a capital S.” —Jesse Pinkman

Anyone who has been watching television lately, be it broadcast or cable, has probably noticed the growing trend of advertising through product placement. According to Nielsen Research, there were 4,896 instances of product placement on primetime broadcast television alone in 2009, and in 2010 that number rose to 9,227, which doesn’t even account for the increasing prevalence of product placement on basic cable.

Despite the rapid growth of product placement all over the dial, academic research on the subject has mostly been focused on reality television and other genres that have historically been dismissed as “low” forms of culture. Suspiciously absent from the conversation has been a look at product placement in so-called “quality” television, especially the sacred cow of serialized drama. 10 years ago, when most television being canonized as “quality” was on pay cable (where there generally isn’t product placement), this approach may have been tenable. Today, with basic cable channels like AMC, FX, and TNT a part of the conversation, this approach is in need of revision. Continue reading “‘Breaking Bad’: Product Placement and “Quality” Television” »

The Crank: ‘An Evening of Celebrity-Centered Television, 1960s–1980s’ Program Notes (1/24/13 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.


30 Years of Celebrity Television

From its early marketing as a domestic appliance, television has been a medium and device used to bring the outside world into the home. A unique medium combining aspects of radio, theater, and film, television brought live images and performance within the private confines of the home. One of the ways in which television solidified its presence and importance within the American cultural landscape was through its use of established stars in its programming. However, as historian Christine Becker writes, rather than replicating theatrical filmmaking, stars were used in order to “serve the new medium’s unique industrial and cultural needs.”1 As the medium has evolved and expanded, so too have production values and programming trends. One theme that has remained consistent over time is a cultural interest in stardom and celebrity. Although there are numerous examples of radio and film stars working on television, tonight’s program highlights examples of non-fiction celebrity-centered programming from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Through these, we can see how formats for talking to and about celebrities have changed (or not). Ultimately, none of these programs were ever broadcast. However, all three of these pieces articulate the (d)evolution of celebrity culture as well as how celebrity was constructed for in-home consumption. Continue reading “The Crank: ‘An Evening of Celebrity-Centered Television, 1960s–1980s’ Program Notes (1/24/13 Screening)” »

In Her Majesty’s Public Service: The Queen, James Bond, and the Pop Culture Nation

In some respects, London’s Olympics opening ceremony was a lot like an Oscars opening number. Amid the theatrical take on the industrial revolution and the National Health Service were a giant Captain Hook puppet, James Bond, hundreds of Mary Poppins look-alikes, and Sir Paul McCartney. Pop culture in all its forms—from brief film interludes to live musical performances—were used to help define what it means to be “Great Britain.” The dominance of culture in the show makes sense, given that Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) served as ceremony director; his influence was certainly felt in the filmmaking style of a number of brief pre-recorded skits and the kinetic percussion stringing the ceremony’s phases together.

Yet if the Olympics are regarded as a kind of sacrosanct, globally “high culture” experience, we should try to understand how the inclusion of so much “mass culture” iconography might speak to a more multi-discursive concept of “the nation.” While the first half of the ceremony stuck to a linear, almost one-dimensional story of Great Britain’s history, the pop culture-infused segments speak to a history and an identity built from many kinds of figures and forms. If anything, this points to Boyle’s conception of the show as postmodern. I speak of postmodernity here as, in part, the intermingling of “icons” from high and popular culture to reconfigure the meaning of high culture, and culture in general. Certainly, pop culture has seemingly consumed sports as a whole: look no further than the Super Bowl, which is as famed for its musical half-time show and advertisements featuring celebrities and movie trailers as it is for the actual football game. But the Olympics, by the very nature of their quadrennial status, global scope, and multi-millennial heritage, have largely resisted a similar conception. Even pervasive advertisements from corporate sponsor Visa portray a literally gold-hued reverence for the athletes and the global unity of the Games. Continue reading “In Her Majesty’s Public Service: The Queen, James Bond, and the Pop Culture Nation” »