Transparent, Season 1
Created by Jill Soloway
Released on September 26, 2014 by Amazon Studios
I imagine my feelings after finishing Transparent’s incredible first season were much like many people’s feelings after Orange is the New Black premiered. It is wholly original and seems to exist as a result of the ways online streaming has opened up the medium of television to previously unrepresented characters. I was enamored both with the show’s characters and the way it approached issues of gender identity and sexuality. I needed to keep binge watching.
Transparent follows the Pfefferman clan, a tightly knit Jewish family living in Los Angeles, as their lives are changed by one member’s brave announcement. Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out to her family as a woman, despite being their father and going by the name Mort for all of their lives. Pfefferman matriarch Shelly (Judith Light) confronts this new knowledge as well as her new husband’s mortality. Eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) reignites a flame with a college ex-girlfriend after realizing how unhappy she is with her husband. Middle child Josh (Jay Duplass) seems to be on the verge of a midlife crisis as more and more romances fail in spectacular fashions. Youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is adrift in both her professional and personal life.
But to try to summarize Transparent’s plot really doesn’t do justice to what an amazing show it is. It feels simultaneously capital-I Important and yet like just another portrayal of a dysfunctional American family. Maura is a revolutionary character, certainly, but she struggles with anxiety and aging just like any other human would. The show manages to confront issues of sexual orientation, feminism, and gender identity without feeling like an after-school special. Characters discuss and struggle with Maura’s coming out, often in clumsy ways, but never with malice. Maura is still their parent, their ex-spouse, their friend. The closest it comes to cliché is when Sarah’s ex-husband rudely confronts Maura and Sarah at dinner, but the show quickly condemns him and gives Maura a showcase monologue to deliver. Much of this is owed to Soloway’s direction and writing. The dialogue feels natural, the family dynamics are recognizable, and the show never turns preachy.
Maura is just the latest strong, complex female character to be showcased on television, joining Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart, Virginia Johnson, Analise Keating, Olivia Pope, Mellie Grant, and Abbi and Ilana from Broad City, among many others. She is undergoing an awakening similar to Margaret Scully’s on Masters of Sex, another character with a knack for perfect and heartbreaking monologues. And even though Maura isn’t portrayed by a woman, it’s refreshing to see such variety among female characters in a way that was previously only afforded to men. Jeffrey Tambor is mesmerizing and heartbreaking as Maura. Never once does his performance feel bait-y or drag-like. The show certainly could have attracted criticism for casting a cisgender straight man as its central character, but it has cast transgender performers in supporting roles and immerses itself in the culture and language in a loving, rather than fetishizing way. Maura is a woman discovering herself, and Tambor is just as good with communicating this through subtle hand-gestures and inflections in speech as he is at delivering centerpiece, Emmy-reel-worthy monologues.
But it isn’t just Tambor who takes my breath away with his stunning performance; the quality of acting across the board is just staggering. With each episode, my favorite performance changed: first it was Tambor, then Hoffman as a daughter exploring the world of gender expression with surprising results, then Light stealing the show with her hilarious one-liners about food selection from a Jewish deli. Even Duplass managed to make what seemed a typical man-child character into someone genuine and fascinating. The stellar acting continues outside of the ensemble as well. The sheer number of recognizable actors popping up is impressive enough, and somehow each actor manages to create a fully realized character in their brief appearance. Michaela Watkins completely steals her episode as the wife of a man who accompanies him to his “cross-dressing camp” and ends up connecting with Maura. Bradley Whitford puts a new spin on his world-weary father character from Trophy Wife that simply breaks my heart. Carrie Brownstein shows that she’s more than just a musician-turned-sketch-comedian with a delicate turn as Ali’s best friend.
Transparent works surprisingly well as a binge-watchable show with its breezy pace and fascinating characters, despite its lack of House of Cards-esque cliffhangers or Arrested Development-style setup episodes building to a punch line. It feels more like a 5-hour indie movie than a short season of a streaming half-hour comedy. The only thing that may keep viewers from devouring it in one blissful afternoon is a desire to spend more time with the Pfefferman clan. If Amazon Studios can continue creating shows as amazing as Transparent, it will soon find itself on the top of television’s Mount Olympus with HBO and Netflix. Transparent’s first season is easily the best piece of television ever created for exclusive online streaming, and one of the best debuts of any show in any medium, ever.