Catching the new season of Transparent, I can’t help thinking of that famous quote from Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. “What came first, the music or the misery?” asks Rob Fleming, a beleaguered vinyl obsessive and record-store owner. “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Transparent is yet another television show that features a profoundly depressed and largely unpleasant cast of characters, and while TV itself has yet to dampen my spirit—I’ve grown bizarrely content in my early middle age—I do often question why I invite so many miserable people into my house.
Ever since the Seinfeld gang made it hip to be self-absorbed and a certain HBO crime family turned moral ambiguity into a prime-time standard, television has slowly been engulfed by unlikability. Back in the golden late-’90s/early-’00s, it was a rush to see the full-blooded antiheroes of The Sopranos and The Wire charge the small screen. Now that’s too often just another hook. Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner pitched Difficult People as “Will & Grace if the characters weren’t likable,” and Amy Poehler and Hulu shout, “YAS!” Thing is, both Will and Grace had already devolved into despicable humans before that series ended, and funny as Difficult People can be, one can only binge up to three episodes at a time before needing to step out for some fresh air and human decency.
Bingeing doesn’t help, of course. If you’re only spending 30 minutes to an hour with someone in a given week, it’s easier to overlook their faults and annoying personal habits. But spend a long weekend in their constant company, and suddenly you’re like, “Why the hell is Elizabeth from The Americans constantly pulling her hair to one side and over her shoulder? Make her stop!” Had Sex in the City surfaced in the Era of Binge, there’s no chance in hell I could have tolerated Carrie’s bad voiceovers and entitled behavior for more than half a season.
In the case of Transparent, it’s not so much “I hate these people” as “I hate what these people are doing to each other.” The Pfefferman family is, as a recent Vulture recap put it, “pretty much the worst.” I keep waiting for one of them to do the right thing. Perhaps not split during a family member’s talent show, or when a parent is in the hospital. But there they are, waiting for the most inappropriate moment to say things like, “I think I cheated,” and crawling into bed with a sibling when that sibling is still in flagrante delicto with last night’s lover.
At the front of this codependent clan is Maura, the former patriarch transitioning into the Pfeffermans’ new mother. A typical show would portray Maura as a trans person with a heart of gold, saintly and sympathetic. But Maura feels like a genuinely groundbreaking creation: an upper-middle-class snob who wants to be a woman yet can’t shake all that privileged male entitlement in her DNA. She’s an asshole, basically, and to Transparent’s credit, she’s an asshole with whom you actually want to spend another 30 minutes.