It’s been over six months since Amazon teased us with the excellent pilot for Transparent. They finally dropped the full first season on us and it is excellent.
Transparent tells the story of Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), the patriarch of the Pfefferman family who wants to be referred to as Maura, revealing himself to be transsexual at the age of 70. The news rocks his “adult” children, and we watch how they react to Maura’s arrival on the scene. For Maura, she’s always been here, finally taking a chance on coming out of the shadows and secrecy.
Largely, Transparent is a comedy with sharp dramatic elements that often sneak up on the unsuspecting audience. There are tons of humbling moments or humiliating moments that strike a very human chord. As a comedy, Transparent doesn’t rely on the setup/punch line style of humor. Instead, the show again uses its unflinching honesty to deliver funny moments that carry a punch too. In fact, the word “honest” is a fantastic way to describe Transparent’s approach to storytelling.
Character wise, Transparent is full of very unlikable people. That the show not only manages to pull this off, but to create an audience engagement with these characters is something of which to take note. The Pfefferman children are indeed damaged goods, products of a family environment where their father had to hide his true self, while their mother (Judith Light’s fun, and sometimes brash return to television) exudes a typical Jewish mother vibe. As the elder sister Sarah, Amy Landecker captures a controlling personality that masks a deeper frustration, who often seems uncertain about what she wants. Mark Duplass as middle child Josh has some of Transparent’s bigger character moments, and maybe even the best arc of the season. Finally, Gaby Hoffmann is Ail, the baby of the family, smart as a whip with no direction in life at all. The real star is Tambor, who is delivering a career defining performance, despite the flak Soloway may be getting for not casting a transsexual actor in the role.
By dropping the entire ten episode season, each installment clocks in at 30 minutes, Transparent is truly perfect for the binge watching shift. In fact, the show often comes off as a longer five hour indie film, keeping in line with the aesthetics of the show. There are moments where Transparent flirts with hipster overdrive and preciousness, but it’s never an overwhelming experience.
Transparent is a show about perceptions and honesty in our lives. Can we ever be who we truly are in our lives, our families, or with ourselves? Or, do we assume the roles thrust upon us for the sake of belonging to something and keep our secrets? Late in the pilot, Mort looks at Ali, the character that exemplifies the apple not falling far from the tree, and tells her, “Boy, it is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see.” Mort is used to hiding and fear, and can recognize it easily. He refers to his children as selfish, and is even somewhat surprised by the revelation. But as we follow them throughout the series, this same preoccupation with perception permeates their lives. Josh cannot make love without demanding his partners to look him in the eyes. Ali chases after every fancy, whether intellectual, sexual, or whatever, never able to find what speaks to her. The season ends with a shiva, where the mirrors are covered to keep the family free from vanity in such a time.
Finally, mention must be made of Transparent’s soundtrack. Transparent boasts what seems to be a painstakingly curated collection of music featured prominently in each episode. Musical cues, lyrics, and memories and central to the story and never come across as intrusive. Now I just need someone to curate a playlist of every song for me.
Jill Soloway, creator of Transparent and known for her work on Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara, has given us a real gem with this show. I don’t often binge whole seasons for time reasons, but I devoured Transparent and I cannot recommend this show enough. Easily, the best show this year.
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