PODCAST - TRANSPARENT: The Series and the Craft
Transparent: The Series and The Craft
By Jacob Krueger
This week we’re going to be talking about the series, Transparent.
This is a series I’ve been wanting to talk about for a very long time. And we’re going to do so from a different perspective than we usually do when we talk about TV series.
Oftentimes on this podcast, when we’ve spoken about series we’ve talked about big picture stuff. We’ve talked about theme and engine and structure. But today, what we’re going to do is zoom in really close on one particular episode.
We’re going to look at Season 3 Episode 5, and we’re going to break it down to its fundamental craft elements: the way that the scenes are actually constructed.
If you’ve seen Transparent Season 3, you know that episode 5 is a kind of monumental moment in the season. A lot of threads that we’ve been following all end up coming together. So if you haven’t watched the season, you should be aware that there are going to be some spoilers ahead.
At the end of Season 3, Episode 4, Josh’s former babysitter and lover, Rita has killed herself.
And as we enter Episode 5, Josh is dealing with that emotional fallout, trying to explain to his transgendered parent, Maura, that Rita is dead.
It’s a devastating scene for so many reasons. One of the beautiful things about Transparent is that all of these characters are always doing the best that they can, but they are also all incredibly selfish and self-centered. So, what we see between Josh and Maura is really a scene in which Josh shares the devastating news of Rita’s death, and Maura makes it all about her– a scene in which Maura fails to comfort, or even hug her son, and instead gets caught up in her own desire not to believe that Rita’s death was a suicide.
And this builds to a culminating moment, when Josh asks Maura if she knew that he and Rita were having sex, way back when he was a kid and she was babysitting him. Maura insists that she didn’t know, but reveals that, in fact, what she thought she was paying for Rita to be Josh’s best friend. Josh responds, appropriately, “that was really fucked up.” And Maura agrees that it was.
So, we start with this really, really heavy scene and this presents a challenge for the writers of Transparent.
One of the beautiful things if you watch Transparent is the dance that Transparent is always doing between light and dark, between comedy and drama, between sadness and beauty and selfishness and love.
And we witness this juxtaposition in the way the piece is constructed.
As so often happens in Transparent, this incredibly heavy scene is juxtaposed with a much lighter one. And it’s that lighter one that I actually want to talk about, because this is a scene that has the potential to be a total flop, especially bouncing up against a scene where the stakes and the emotional drama are so high.
To give you a little bit of background, Sarah Pfefferman, Josh’s sister, has been spending this whole season trying to become a more active part of her synagogue community. But she keeps getting rejected from the board. And, primarily, the reason she gets rejected is because of her unconventional relationship with her husband, with whom she’s living and raising children, even though they’re separated and he’s dating other women. She’s also not well liked because of her desperate need to be accepted.
Sarah has managed to wrangle the Rabbi, Raquel, who is Josh’s former girlfriend, into allowing her to throw a big Havdalah ceremony in the school gymnasium. And this is basically the most important thing in Sarah’s life. This is her opportunity to finally work her way back into the synagogue community and to show off her ability to be an organizer. And Sarah, of course has also been going through some personal stuff of her own. Because as much as she’d like to pretend she’s fine with her arrangement, she most definitely is not.
In the last episode, we’ve seen her slip into her husband’s 22-year-old girlfriend’s spin class. And we’ve seen this incredibly awkward conversation between the two of them in which Sarah tries to pretend that she’s delighted with a situation that’s clearly not alright for her emotionally. And later in that same episode we actually see her talk to her husband about this upcoming Havdalah service, and how badly she wants him to come. And of course, he has a date with his girlfriend, and isn’t going to be there.
So, we’re now entering a new scene and this is a scene that has opportunity to flop. It’s bumping up against a scene between Maura and Josh that is hugely dramatic and emotional, where the stakes feel like life and death. We’re talking about themes of sexual abuse. We’re talking about, are you a good parent? We’re talking about, can you meet your children’s needs? We’re talking about dealing with the loss of someone who took advantage of you but whom also loved…
It is such a complicated scene, and we are popping from there into a scene that’s basically boils down to this: Sarah is really nervous about Havdalah, and she’s freaking out that people are not going to come.
And this is one of those scenes that in the wrong hands is going to suck. It’s going to be a bunch of talking heads discussing super low-stakes stuff, especially compared to the previous scene.
If you look at the actual dialogue of the scene, most of it is really just a giant monologue (which we all know isn’t supposed to work on television) of Sarah emoting and freaking out that nobody is going to come to her Havdalah and whether or not you can trust Facebook when people RSVP.
Here’s an excerpt:
You know it probably doesn’t matter– nobody’s going to come anyway. You know, all these people RSVP’d, but, like, it’s on Facebook, so you totally cannot trust it. You know what I mean? Because they just go like “yeah,” you know, and then they don’t mean– I mean why? They should have, like, a category that’s like “I’m saying yes but I’m really probably not coming” but no idea I have no idea…
So, this has the opportunity to be incredibly boring scene. A static scene, an overly emotive scene, and a low stakes scene, especially compared to the stakes of the previous scene.
And yet, at the same time, it’s a really important scene.
Because this is going to be the scene in which Sarah and her husband start to come together– start to come back together– in a different way. This is going to be the scene where he makes a sacrifice for her.
So, how do the writers make it work?
They use a very simple technique, which is probably one of the most important and most underutilized techniques in screenwriting. And this is a craft technique, that you’ve probably heard about if you have taken our Craft classes. It’s a craft technique called Rooting Your Character in Action.
The thing that transforms a boring scene into a compelling one, the thing that transforms a static scene into an active one, the thing that transforms a scene that could have felt like manipulation by the writer into one that feels like we’re watching people in real life– is simply the technique of rooting these characters in the action of trying to fill a bunch of inflatable hammocks with air. So that rather than just standing around and emoting dramatically, it feels like they’re actually living their lives.
If you want to watch this scene it’s Season 3, Episode 5. It starts at 5 minutes and 47 seconds and ends at 7 minutes, 39 seconds.
And if you want to see something really interesting, watch it with the sound off. You will notice something amazing– you can actually see the structure of the scene without any sound!
And that’s how you know your craft is really good.
I’m going to make an odd comparison here, (since most people would never talk about Mad Max and Transparent in the same sentence) but there’s a George Miller quote that I think is really telling in this regard. George Miller basically says (and this is going to be a paraphrase) that if your movie were to play in Chinese with Chinese subtitles and an American went to see it, they should still understand what is happening by the way you use your images.
And at our best, we all think about our screenplays like George Miller. If you watch this episode, simply by watching the progression of these two characters as they try to fill these silly air hammocks, you can see the structure of their journey together, without a single word.
Here’s what that progression looks like if you haven’t seen the episode:
We start off with Sarah, racing back and forth across her backyard with an air hammock that just will not fill, while her husband is trying some balancing acts on a skateboard. And it’s a great beginning because it captures the entire nature of their relationship. Right? We have the husband who’s going through his own crazy midlife crisis, dating a twenty-something-year-old girl, trying to reinvent himself as a younger man and quite frankly not helping his wife at all.
And we have the wife who is absolutely frantic, feeling all alone in the world and trying to get ready for a party that feels like its stakes are life and death for her.
And in this one moment the characters get rooted entirely in the action. They’re not anticipating the scene; they’re not showing up to have the emotional scene the writer is planning, they’re showing up to play on their skateboard, or fill their air hammocks. And this is possible, because rather than relying solely upon dialogue, the writer is relying on action to tell the story.
Oftentimes, as writers, what happens is we know this is going to be a really important scene. We know that this is going to be the scene where Sarah and her husband finally start to connect. We know this is going to be a scene where Sarah finally opens up about her fear. We understand what our emotional content is. And we forget that our characters have no idea that this is about to happen to them. And as a result, we start playing the role of puppetmaster, rather than the role of writer.
So, one of the ways that you can think about your action is just to think: why did my characters enter this scene? Why did they show up today, not knowing that they were going to have this moment together? How did they show up, without any sense of what the writer had in store for them? And what’s the action they’re doing that can be captured in a visually striking way?
Why do they enter? Well, in this case, Sarah entered because she has 500 inflatable hammocks that she needs to fill. And Len, her husband, entered because he wants to play on a skateboard. And by rooting the characters in this action, first off, we get some wonderful comic images of this mad woman running back and forth with a hammock, and her way-too-old-to-be-on-a-skateboard hubby trying to be on a skateboard.
The next image we get is the skateboard kind of sliding out from under Len. And you can see this is also structural. The skateboard slides out from under Len, and the next thing you know he’s picking up a hammock to help out.
And you can see, with these images alone, without any sense of the dialogue, we’re already telling the story. We’re telling the story of this couple coming back together.
So, now, we have already seen Len move from trying to be a kid, to taking just a little bit of responsibility for helping his wife.
In the next beat we watch Len stand in place, spinning in circles as he tries to fill the hammock, while Sarah runs back and forth in front of him, in and out of frame.
And you can see again that we’re getting nice comic images here. But that we’re also capturing the development of their relationship. The actual nature of their relationship is captured in the physicalization of their action, Len spinning in place, while Sarah streaks back and forth around him.
In the next beat, we see the two of them running together, trying to fill these hammocks, and you can see the progression there.
And the next beat is that Len stops, and gives a monologue of his own.
And even without sound you can see that this is the moment.
Because Len stops, and then Sarah stops, and they speak to each other for real.
Without even telling you what Len’s monologue says, you can see that this is a moment of connection between the two of them.
Having made that connection with his wife, Len then sets down the hammock and goes back to his skateboard. And Sarah watches him with a completely different look. She gives one more playful swipe of the hammock and we are out of the scene.
And so, you can see what happened.
From a craft perspective, we actually began and ended at the same place, but those actions at the beginning and end actually captured a huge journey for these characters– a journey from complete disconnection to reconnection, admiration and love.
You can see the journey in the action. And if we add the dialogue, you can see how these two things play together.
Here’s what that scene looks like (transcribed from the streaming video without much writerly embellishment by me).
EXT. NEIGHBORHOOD STREET – DAY
A Tree. A passing car. Sarah & Len’s house.
Are you sure that’s how you inflate them?
EXT. BACKYARD – DAY
Len balances awkwardly on a skateboard while Sarah runs frantically back and forth, waving an uninflated air hammock over her head.
No, I don’t know. I think that’s what it said. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t even get one and I have like 500.
The skateboard slides out from under Len. He picks up an uninflated hammock from the many scattered throughout the yard.
Alright. What do you do you just grab them?
You’re trying to get air and then you seal it up–
This is very opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
Len spins in circles, swiping the hammock in the air, while Sarah dashes back and forth past him, disappearing in and out of FRAME.
You know it probably doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to come anyway. You know all these people RSVP’d, but, like, it’s on Facebook, so you totally cannot trust it. You know what I mean? Because they just go like “yeah,” you know, and then they don’t mean– I mean, why? They should have like a category that’s like “I’m saying ‘yes’ but I’m really probably not coming”– but no idea. I have no idea.
Neither air hammock is getting any fuller. Len changes tactics and starts dashing back and forth with Sarah.
Like I’m coming but I may not come.
Right. Oh, don’t let me forget to pack up the lighters from the barbecue, because I have, like, all these votives. Like 1000 votives.
He stops and watches her.
You’re so adorable.
It’s kindof working
Do you remember the week before Zachie was born? How worried you were? And you wanted, like, everything to be perfect. You were planning everything. You were like a cute little prenatal Mussolini.
She finally comes to a stop.
If no one comes to your thing, I’ll come to your thing. Put me down as your one official RSVP. I’ll be there.
He gets back on the skateboard.
I thought you had a thing with Una.
I do have a thing with Una. But I can reschedj.
Sarah watches him warmly as ROLLS across frame on the skateboard. Gives one last playful swipe with the hammock.
And we’re out!
So, you can see what happened here. We have scene that, without the action, would be a talking, planning, emoting scene, with a ton of exposition and very little structure to it. But through this little trick of craft, this scene is translated into one which holds its weight as a comic counterpoint to the drama that happened in the previous scene. The action even affects the dialogue–giving the characters something specific to talk about (the hammocks) that has absolutely nothing to do with the emotional content between them. An outer layer to the dialogue that provides the cover for the subtext and the performances of these actors.
We have a scene that takes characters that could feel like they were being manipulated by the writers in order to move their relationship forward, and instead root them in their real lives in a way that feels grounded and real.
We have a scene with physical comedy throughout. The blocking of which also captures the changes in their reactions to each other. The changes between the two of them.
And we have a scene that structurally moves the story of the movie forward.
And what’s so beautiful about this, and what’s so impressive about this, is that in the juxtaposition of these two scenes, the writer is also showing us the theme of the entire series– the theme that’s finally going to be spoken during the Havdalah ceremony. When Raquel speaks about the light and the shadows, the idea of the candle that illuminates both sides.
And this is the nature of Transparent and this is the structure of Transparent and this is the theme of Transparent, and this is also the structure, the nature and the theme of the episode. This constant juxtaposition of light and shadows, with each contrasting scene creating structure and grounding for the next.
At the beginning of the episode, we see a scene capturing the lack of connection between Josh and Maura. And at the end, that relationship gets totally transformed, when Maura interrupts the Havdalah, to say the Kaddish for the woman her son loved.
We see it again in the beautifully blooming relationship between Ali and Leslie, the Cherry Jones character, her teacher with whom she’s falling in love. That structure begins with a moment of connection in poetry between student and teacher where it seems like they’re starting to become equals. It then moves in a darkly comic way through the Havdalah ceremony, when Leslie gets so caught up in her politics that she ends up picking a fight with the congregants over Israel, and completely ignoring the effects of her actions upon Ali and Sarah. And finally, it culminates in the payoff of a carefully set up joke, when Leslie falls right into the everyone’s been talking about (and the hole she’s been digging for herself). It’s another physical culmination that uses comic images to tell a structural story, not just of the events of the Havdalah, but of the shifting power dynamic between Ali and Leslie, as Ali finally stands up for herself and her family to her adored teacher.
And on the other side of that, we get to see a different side of Leslie as well, another variation on the theme, as Ali does the physical action of tending to Leslie’s injured leg, and Leslie admits that she fears her emotions, admitting to Ali in another variation on the theme: “I see all of you… I’m falling in love with you.”
And so, you can see what’s happening here is we actually have a structure, in which the way the episode is put together is echoing the theme of the series as a whole. Where the way the pieces are put together is exploring a theme of light and darkness in the physical actions of the characters, the visual specificity of how they do those actions, and the words that they say to each other. The lightness and the darkness in people happening at the same time, the pathos and the humor.
And you can see this even in the construction of this Havdalah scene, which is actually written like a big old farce, complete with a big pratfall at the end. But tonally is written like a tragedy.
We have the joke about the hole, which begins with the little girl making a warning sign in Hebrew that there is a hole, and ends with Cherry Jones falling into it. We have the running gag about the pupusas. It’s supposed to be a taco event, but Sarah ended up ordering pupusas, and everyone keeps asking for tacos and the pupusa woman keeps on saying “pupusa.” And of course, this is a funny way of attacking Sarah’s need for this Havdalah ceremony to be perfect.
There is the dramatic tension of Josh showing up at his ex-girlfriend, Rabbi Raquel’s, event, where he’s not supposed to be. And this incredibly powerful scene that happens between the two of them when he tells her what happened to Rita, and he asks her if she will go on a road trip with him, to deliver Rita’s ashes to Josh’s son– the son that Raquel drove away when she and Josh were together.
We have Mom, played by Judith Light, who may be oh-so-supportive of Sarah, and feel oh-so-sad for Josh, but spends the whole Havdalah breaking Sarah’s rules about no ipads in order to promote her own storytelling series (she’s very proud of her 120 viewers).
We have the behavior of Maura, which is both completely inappropriate– one more action that’s all about her– interrupting Sarah’s event to give the wrong blessing at the wrong time– but also beautiful– honoring her relationship with her son and finally recognizing and trying to acknowledge his pain with her blessing.
And we have this beautiful moment of irony, when Raquel, rather than Josh, bursts into tears as Maura gives her prayer, and Raquel’s new boyfriend comes to comfort her in front of the already grieving Josh.
So we have this beautiful structure here. And with this beautiful structure of light and dark, we have this wonderful juxtaposition of a world where all the characters are out for themselves, but also love each other where comedy and drama are happening at the same time.
And most importantly we have the craft of the writer who’s doing both of these things in a way that feels absolutely effortless. Bringing this huge cast together into this explosive event that is both drama and comedy at the same time. That has structural comedy roots but dramatic execution.
And most importantly we have a very simple concept that we can all take for ourselves- no matter where you are in your craft, whether you’re a professional writer who’s been working in this medium for years or you’re a brand-new writer just starting out: rooting your character in action.
Don’t start your scenes with dialogue. Start your scenes with actions. Think about why your characters showed up, and give them something to do, that shows a little bit of themselves. Whether that’s a little girl making a poster that says “hole.” Shelly running around taking photos with her iPad at an event when there are no iPads are allowed. Or a hubby balancing on a skateboard while the wife runs around like a maniac trying to fill up a bunch of hammocks.
Because once you have those actions, you can use them to build a reality for your characters, and a structure for your scene, that reads both visually and dramatically. That gives your characters something specific to talk about as a vessel for their subtext, specific actions for them to do to capture the way their relationships are changing, and a framework for the scenes to come– a way of visually measuring the juxtapositions of your film.
Rooting your characters in simple, real-life everyday actions that reveal aspects of their character is one of the most effective ways that you can root your characters in the structure of your movie.
It’s one of the is one of the most effective ways that you can bring reality to your writing, that you can allow your audience to feel like they are experiencing the story rather than reading it.
And the great thing about this is you can do it right now. Simply ask yourself: where is my character and what are they doing? Why did they come into the room? Why did they show up on the lawn? What are they doing? What’s the real-world task?
Your director is always going to cut on action, so you can just ask yourself: what’s the action that I come in on? What is your character doing? And how does that action reflect the how of who this character actually is?