Lord knows I love Larry Kramer but I was underwhelmed by the 2014 adaptation of The Normal Heart, Kramer’s drama about the formation of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first body to attempt to tackle the mysterious illness we now know as the AIDS pandemic. The play was originally staged in 1985. Kramer then wrote a screen version for direction by Ryan Murphy last year, in which there was somehow less of a sense that the world didn’t care about a disease killing New York’s ‘undesirables’, than that the disease itself was actually only happening to a dozen people in a telephone crisis centre. The world felt oddly remote, and not for the right reasons. In 1969, Kramer’s sexy screenplay update of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love won him an Oscar nomination, but time didn’t seem to be working in his favour for a twenty-first century Normal Heart. There was something of the clunky and anachronistic exposition we are all supposed to accept in this post-Downton Abbey world, but I was oddly unmoved by it, plus I straight up did not rate Jim Parsons. Having said that, Julia Roberts gave a great turn as the Virginia Woolf-like scientist providing a lone voice of reason and restraint as the virus gathered pace; Mark Ruffalo I could happily watch sanding door frames with the sound off; and Joe Mantello’s manic diatribe as the body count hopelessly increased, was, I think, award-winning stuff. But the road was full of rocks to get you there.
If you want a lesson in narrative grace, watch Transparent. In fact if you want a lesson in most of the important skills of contemporary drama, Transparent has them – script, pace, casting, story, you name it. And it doesn’t make things easy on itself. Turning-point scenes happen off-screen, there are numerous flashbacks, temporal dislocation, narrative uncertainty. But it’s all water tight, and so consistently and persistently emotionally fraught that it’s best to sit back and not speak for a while after each episode. It’s also the most genuinely queer thing I’ve seen in ages. The fluidity of gender and sexual identity is practically torrential in Transparent. It’s a story that’s as much about navigating human desire across all manner of boundaries/binaries as it is about a trans woman – the blindingly talented Jeffrey Tambor as Maura – coming out to her family of adult children. It’s listed on IMDb under ‘Comedy’ but I can’t think what for – other than as some kind of categorical titillation to prevent a straighter audience being deterred. Regardless, it does have plenty of funny moments, effortlessly and circumstantially funny that is, and therefore real comedy, the comedy of life rolling on with pitfalls and errors. What I like most about it though is that it has is no discernible interest in ‘normalising’ trans or queer experience – doing so would cost the story the uniqueness that convinces you that you have never seen anything like this before.