It is at once equal parts easy and impossible to create something new on television these days. There’s a formula, a format, a way of doing things that’s set in stone. A sort of emotional satisfaction and expectation that viewers of the format in particular, have come to expect. And even with the litany of shows attempting to reinvent that wheel — making “prestige television” a sort of eyeroll-inducing affair these days — one show manages to eclipse all of that: Amazon Prime’s Jill Soloway series, Transparent.
This is very, very good television, folks. This time, it’s truly different.
This is a series that may just make you uncomfortable. It may make you confront your notions on gender, sexuality, identity, and everything in between — all those typified ideas and long-held societal ideals — about what it means to be human. It’s a radical concept told with stunning, quiet honesty through the struggles of the Pfefferman family, made up of Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light, Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann, and Jay Duplass. All people struggling — and to the same metaphorical sense, transitioning themselves — with the limitations of their and society’s ideals for what it means to be a human male, or female, or something else entirely.
At the show’s heart is Tambor’s character, Maura. And even though it may be hyperbolic to say, his work as the transitioning parent to 3 adult, dysfunctional in their own ways children, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. His love of Maura the character is evident in every single movement, every facial expression, every emotion that he so clearly feels and allows to pour out of him as Maura discovers what it means to be herself and to finally let go after a lifetime of hiding. This may just be Tambor at his all-time best. In his very capable hands, Maura — someone who could have very easily been a stereotype, bad cliché, or misguided mess with a lesser actor — transcends characterization and becomes a very real, very captivating human. Seeing Maura at the LGBT Center for the first time dressed in female clothes, you know her and you care about her — even if you’ve never met another trans person before in your life. His admiration for Maura and her story brings the whole thing together.
And secrets — the necessity and burden of them — are a big part of the series itself. Maura and ex-wife Shelly (Light)’s eldest, Sarah (Landecker), is forced to deal with her feelings for a recently resurfaced female lover …while balancing a husband and her kids. Josh (Duplass) struggles with his own denial and man child-ish antics, including wants of his own of which there seems to be a bit of shame. And then there’s Ali (Hoffmann). Oh Ali, so unrooted, so lost, so confused, so unsure which — if any — binary fits her life. She’s the purest soul — just like Maura — and their kindred relationship is a gift to the whole series.
Soloway — whose previous work includes the movie Afternoon Delight in addition to executive producing such series as Six Feet Under, The United States of Tara, and How to Make it in America just to name a few — is running on all cylinders with Transparent. A story that touches home (her own parent began the process of transitioning three years ago), it also rests comfortably in Soloway’s wheelhouse, bringing intimate, raw emotional honesty to the character’s actions, feelings, and the situations those two things bring them into.
This is a show that will make you think, and question, and reassess things. Life. Society. Humanity. All in good, necessary ways. This is a show that tackles the last intimate frontier (no, not sex: please that was done long ago): our relationship with ourselves and our own humanity. Our understanding of just how weird and wonderful — in every good and bad moment — being alive and human is today. Transparent will toy with your emotional state while reeling you in with its storytelling, at once bombastic in its sentiment but played out with a quiet familiarity. It is beautiful, confounding, confusing, flabbergasting life brought to the screen with so much respect, care, and love from the people involved that it leaps onto the screen as an entity that feels entirely new while also shockingly comfortable.
Amazon may have struggled so far in the race to original content domination more so than the rest, but with Transparent they’ve found something wholly unique, special, and original. It is lightning in a bottle that’ll stay with you long after the pilot episode has ended.
The entire season of Transparent hits Amazon Prime on today, September 26th. Will you be tuning in? Watched the pilot already? Let’s discuss in the comments.