I didn’t expect Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning series Transparent to delight me so. Certainly not as I listened—rapt—to creator Jill Soloway share her family’s story on NPR’s Fresh Air. As she told of discovering her father was transgender, I expected drama, for my heart to break during the show. But I knew I had to watch.

Jeffrey Tambor in 'Transparent'

Jeffrey Tambor in 'Transparent'

Sure enough, last month, as I clicked my way through the ten episodes of the first season, I felt the drama. I shook my head and sighed plenty as the Pfefferman family’s personal and public demons reared their heads. My heart broke as we traveled through the troubles of the adult children whose lives spin and spiral against a backdrop of discovering their father (“Moppa,” as she comes to be called) identifies as a woman.

At the heart of Transparent is a wonderful—if “boundary challenged,” if over-the-top dysfunctional— family. These are brilliantly crafted characters. Even in the legion of cringe-moments—when the brother slept with the rabbi, when the younger sister used drugs to finagle a threesome, as the ex-spouses plotted murder and the older sister left her husband and kids for her college girlfriend—I found them relatable, inspirational, and, to my surprise, likeable. (Most of them, anyway. I still have trouble with the older sister.)

The secrets and lies and impulses and sexual looseness of this TV show are enough to put the “dark” in “dark comedy.” The New York Times review admitted there was “nothing initially endearing” about the trans woman at the center of the show, played by Jeffery Tambor. And the kids were “just as enigmatic.” So why did so many get hooked? Why did I—a Christian called to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…” (Phil. 4:8)—watch a family full of selfishness and brokenness and mistakes?

In these characters, I see people capable of great sin (the greatest of which is selfishness, which Moppa laments), but also of great love. Obviously, this isn’t anything new for TV families. We see plenty of bumbling sitcom families or troubled families in hour-long, tear-jerking dramas exhibit great sins and great love. But there’s something about Transparent. Perhaps it’s the rawness of the language—of the often gratuitous nudity even—that reflects the rawness of real family life.

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Jeffrey Tambor in 'Transparent'

Jeffrey Tambor in 'Transparent'

The love they show—and feel—doesn’t tie up nicely. It stays messy. Hurtful. Hard. Confusing. Like real family love. Indeed, on a show centered on a premise of gender “confusion,” the paradox continuously present is what really confounds us. How can they be so horrible and yet so wonderful?

The Pfefferman children may each try to scheme their way into profiting off the sale their dad’s multi-million dollar house, but when they discover her secret, none of them slither away from Moppa. They love her.

True, we squirm at the brother’s sexual relationship with his ingénue-client, but when Josh grieves the baby she aborts, we see love.

Indeed, Moppa and Shelly (the ex-Mrs.) Pfefferman may plot out ways to put Shelly’s new husband out of his “misery,” but when the husband goes missing, we see Ali—perhaps the youngest and most lost of the Pfefferman kids—seek her step-father out. And we see love.

The fact that we can delight in these Pfeffermans, even in the midst of their worst moments reflects a bit of God’s love for and delight in us.

After all, God delighted in King David (Ps. 18:19)—a man who made the Pfeffermans look like the Cleavers. David was awful. Terrible. He didn’t sleep with his rabbi (not that we know of), but he did with seemingly everyone else. David didn’t just plot murder; he carried it out. This guy—this murderous sexual predator—was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). Talk about confusing! And yet, pure comfort.

Because if God can love a guy like David, if Jesus can invite a schemer like Zaccheaus to dinner and kick back, chatting theology over cups of water, with the Woman at the Well, if God looks past our sin and shame and secrets and horrible behavior and sees our love, then, that’s great news for us.

I know some people laud Transparent because it covers new ground, covering the “taboo”-ish topic of transgender people and humanizing them, giving shape and story to their plight. And that’s good reason. The transgender community is misunderstood, mistreated, and Transparent shows again the beauty of fiction’s ability to increase our empathy.

Amy Heckerling and Jeffrey Tambor in 'Transparent'

Amy Heckerling and Jeffrey Tambor in 'Transparent'

But for me, the story of the Pfeffermans covers ancient ground, ground we Christians always need reminding of: that God tells us—in fact, sent his Son to tell us—that we may mess up every which way from Tuesday, but that isn’t the whole of us. Despite it all, we are worthy of being loved.

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Transparent reminds us of why “love the sinner, hate the sin” is such bad advice—because it keeps us centered on sin instead of zooming in on what God does: our hearts. Though of course God sees our actions clearly, God’s apparent preference for what goes in our hearts made all the difference in David’s life, in Zacchaeus’ life, in the Woman at the Well’s, in the thief on the cross, in mine, in yours (I hope).

That God looks at our hearts gives us permission (actually, it’s probably a command) to do the same. We don’t need to delight only in those whose behavior standards or, say, whose own understanding of gender or sexuality matches our own. A show like Transparent has proved to me that we can delight in acts of love, in acts of goodness and kindness wherever, however we see it—perhaps, even go out of our way to look for it, to be willing to look beyond the unpleasant or troubling or difficult to the “good” or the love in one another. Like God does with us.

Caryn Rivadeneira is a regular contributor at Her.meneutics. She’s the author of five books including Known and Loved: 52 Devotions from the Psalms(Revell, 2013). Caryn lives outside of Chicago with her husband, three kids, and their rescued pit bull.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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