Podcast

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The Masterful Subtext of Transparent

What happens when you throw a party and the text never arrives? You have to subsist on subtext. But really well-written subtext can accomplish more than text ever can. Let’s take some time to really dig into the pilot’s big (non-)scene: the three kids gather at Marua-as-Mort’s place for take-out barbecue and an announcement, but Maura chickens out and offers them the house rather than coming out as trans. Here’s the whole scene (This dialogue is all overlapping and rapid-fire):
  • Sarah (about biscuits): These are really amazing. Ali, you haven’t had one of these.
  • Ali: Are you kidding? I’m gluten free.
  • Mort: You having problems with gluten?
  • Josh (talking over Ali): Yeah, she is, she’s having a lot of problems with gluten. Also with restless leg.
  • Ali (playing along with mockery): It’s restless leg syndrome.
  • Josh: Also, Epstein Barr…
  • Sarah: Mercury poisoning…
  • Josh: Chronic fatigue…
  • Sarah: Fibromyalgia…
  • Josh: Lyme disease. She had Lyme disease. Four people in Los Angeles have ever had Lyme disease, and Ali is one of them, but it was temporary.
  • Sarah (to Mort): You have sauce right here (touches her own chin)
  • Ali: Oh my god, leave him alone, he’s mid-meal. This is the golden rule, let him be as messy as he wants, we’ll hose him down at the end.
  • Sarah: No! You clean up as you go along!
  • Josh (to Mort): You guys never taught us how to eat. You realize that, right?
  • Mort: Because we come from shtetl people. Your grandma Rose actually ate lettuce with her bare hands.
  • Sarah (watching Josh eat) Josh, seriously, do something about yourself.
  • Josh: Actually, on principle, I will not. I’m eating barbecue, it’s on my face, I’m not perfect like you.
  • Mort: Okay…
  • Josh: Sorry Miss Cleanliness USA.
  • Sarah: It’s not that hard (wipes her own face) Wipe!
  • Josh: Why don’t you clean up the barbecue sauce inside your vagina?
  • Mort: HEY GUYS…
  • Ali: Sorry.
  • Mort: Listen, I have, I, I need to talk to you about something, there’s a big change going on, and (starts to cry) Oh God, I love you kids, I love you kids, I love you kids, I love you kids,
  • Sarah: It IS cancer!
  • Ali: Dad, are you dying? Just tell us if you’re dying. Daddy, are you dying??
  • Sarah (overlapping): Oh my god, you were right, I knew it was cancer.
  • Josh: I don’t think he has cancer. He looks good.
  • Mort: Thank you.
  • Sarah: It doesn’t matter how he looks! Remember Jill Goldberg? She had a melanoma for three years, they couldn’t see it, then BOOM, she’s dead.
  • Josh: Jill Goldberg is dead?
  • Ali (talking over Josh): Yeah, and if Daddy had the kind that looked like, (to Mort) What did all your friends die of?
  • Mort: Prostate
  • Ali: Prostate! That’s the one that you’ve probably got, right?
  • Ali, Sarah and Josh all start talking at once and we can’t understand a word. We close in on Mort/Maura’s face until she finally slams her hand down on the table.
  • Mort: God! Stop it! God, I don’t have cancer! [long silence] You kids want me to have cancer??
  • They don’t answer, but Josh licks barbecue sauce off his fingers greedily.
  • Mort: All right… So… [chickens out] I’m selling the house. I’m done with the house.
  • Josh: I’ll take it.
  • Sarah: No you won’t. You’re not going to move to the west side.
  • Josh: No, not to live in, I’m going to flip it. I’m going to Zillow the fuck out of this place. Do you know how much it’s worth right now?
  • Mort: Well, I…
  • Sarah finally leans over and starts wiping barbecue sauce off Mort’s face.
  • Mort: Well, I, --Oh, that’s cold—
  • Sarah: I’m sorry (keeps wiping)
  • Mort: Please?
  • Sarah: I’m sorry.
  • Mort (to Sarah): I was thinking that you and Len would love to live in this house.
  • Josh and Ali: Oh my GOD!
  • Josh: No fucking way! Jesus Christ! [Jumps up to do the dishes in an adjoined kitchen]
  • Sarah (touched): Why do you want to give the house to me?
  • Mort: Because I do.
  • Ali: This is crazy. Now she has two sugar daddies?? She already got one!
  • Josh: I want a husband to buy me a house who works his ass off so I can just go to yoga and just take naps all day. I’d love that.
  • Ali: Why should you two get to decide who gets the house? You both have a house! I don’t have a house!
  • Josh: You can’t have a house, because you can’t handle money, which is proven by the fact that you don’t have a house.
  • Ali: ‘Proven’ is not a word like that. “As proven by the fact”? That’s a verb. As an adjective, “A proven fact”, that works. See? This is why you have to date children, because they don’t correct your grammar.
  • Josh: I do not date children!
  • Ali: Yes you do.
  • Josh: You’re a child, actually. (to Mort) Listen dad, it would have been really nice if you’d talked to me about this privately, before you turned it into a free-for-all. You know what? I have a show, and I love you guys very much, I will speak to you later. Good-bye.
  • After a cut that may be a time jump, or maybe not, Sarah gets up to clear the table.
  • Sarah: Okay. (to Ali) You want to take this home?
  • Ali: Yes, please.
  • Sarah (to Mort): Daddy, you don’t need all this food, right?
  • He doesn’t answer but looks somewhat forlorn as it’s take away.
  • Sarah: Dad, I’m going to put these baby-backs in a ziplock for you.
  • Ali (notices how depressed her dad is): Where you gonna live, Daddy?
  • He looks at her but doesn’t answer. He’s going to live in an LGBT condo complex, but he can’t tell her that.
End of scene (Sorry for the long transcript, but I found it helpful to type it out.) So what do we have here? A metric ton of subtext:
  • They begin by mocking Ali as a hypochondriac = Don’t come to this skeptical family for sympathy.
  • Then Sarah complains about their eating habits = They micromanage each other’s lives and resent each other for it. We see that Sarah is anal retentive, Josh is anal expulsive, and Ali is conflict-averse. Josh turns this into a criticism of their parenting.
  • Mort interrupts, starts to cry, they all assume it’s cancer = Mort is (literally) death in their eyes, they’re fighting over her type of cancer = fighting over her corpse = fighting over her money.
  • She decides not to tell them, offers them the house instead = “Fine, kill me”. He offers it to Sarah = “You control yourself, you keep it in, let’s keep it in together.” Josh explodes = “I want to liquidate you” “I never got quality from you so I’ll quantify you instead.”
  • All three kids lash out at the home situation of the other two = “I may suck, but you two suck more so I get dad’s love/house by default.”
  • Josh storms out. Sarah takes the food away from dad = I take your offer of power and leave you with nothing. I’m now the power broker and the other kids are now dependent on me.
  • It’s only with the final line that Ali tries to really listen, but now Mort/Maura is unwilling to talk, and who could blame her?
On a beatsheet, the line for this scene would be: Maura tells the kids, but instead we get five minutes of everything but that, and the result is wonderful. Let your characters say it all by avoiding saying what they need to say.

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