‘Transparent’: Amazon’s Astonishing, Must-Watch New Show
In television, we draw a bright line between what’s real and what isn’t. Survivor, a series in which noisy fame monsters are air-dropped onto an island and filmed, is considered “reality.” Parenthood, a more overtly scripted show about a family of touchy, talky liberals in the Bay Area, is branded as fiction. Yet the truth is, neither much resembles the world around us. On each show, the familiar trappings of TV storytelling serve as both a skeleton and a cage, giving structure to the unruliness of actual reality and limiting the potential for emotional candor. Don’t get me wrong: Watching someone eat bugs or beat cancer can be exhilarating. But it’s not that dissimilar from the fleeting adrenaline rush of a roller coaster: a temporary moment of chaos in the midst of what is really a tightly controlled and organized track.
My goal in saying this isn’t to denigrate either series, both of which are successful and deeply beloved. The best writing often resembles a magic trick: When done right, you don’t even notice the effort. But it’s an important distinction to make when considering Transparent, the astonishing new Amazon series that debuts its entire first season online today. The show isn’t a documentary; the majority of the 10 episodes are written and directed by Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under). Yet from its first frame to its last, Transparent projects an air of intimacy so shocking that it takes your breath away. The story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a seventy-something divorcée transitioning from male to female, and her three adult children, is boundary-pushing. But Transparent, in ways subtle and powerful, pushes past the complicated terrain of gender and, in so doing, obliterates the idea of boundaries altogether.
Transparent presents a fictional world stripped clean of fiction’s allure: the ability to edit out the rough stuff, the opportunity to sand down messiness into something resembling order. There is no safety in the Los Angeles depicted in Transparent, no easy resolutions, no perfect quips. Here, TV’s most familiar relationships — father-daughter, husband-wife, sister-sister — are rendered unpredictable and fraught. The show is ostensibly a comedy (and is often extremely funny), but the laughs come from a place of deep vulnerability and, quite often, genuine pain. Transparent pokes at the bruises many of us would rather keep hidden; it’s a thumb in the eye that makes you see more clearly. “You’re not allowed to do this, you know,” one wronged character says to another in the third episode and, rather than sting with some sort of moral authority, the words just hang dumbly in the air. Because, if we’re being honest, there really are no rules to life, just conventions to which we agree to adhere. Transparent breaks down those walls, sets up camp, and asks: Well, what now?
If I’m making the show sound too heavy, I’m doing it a disservice. Transparent is never less than entertaining. Much of this boils down to character and casting. The Pfeffermans are one of the most deliriously specific clans I can remember encountering on television, a riotous mishpucha of crosstalk and kvetching. Eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) is unhappily married to Len (Rob Huebel) and deeply in love with Tammy (Melora Hardin), an old college flame recently relocated to the same privileged world of private schools and carpools. Middle child Josh (Jay Duplass) is a hipster record executive who projects an aura of confident, cardigan-ed sexuality while hiding a childhood trauma that he believes to be a badge of honor. And youngest Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) is a raw nerve, overflowing with ideas and absolutely petrified of follow-through. Together, the three present a vision of siblingdom that is rough and rare. They yell at one another, dance together, wipe great smears of barbecue sauce from each other’s mouths. They can talk to each other endlessly about anything other than the truth. Soloway depicts family as a shared barrel heading straight for the waterfall, as uncomfortable as it is unavoidable.
(It’s worth noting that the Pfeffermans are also the most Jewish clan I’ve ever seen on TV. With their talk of shtetls, lox, and “Tanta Gittel’s Holocaust ring,” they make The Goldbergs look like The Millers. Soloway is particularly good at observing the hazy relationship many secular Jews have with history, an overwhelming need to laugh about horrible things in order to establish both ownership and distance. And Judith Light, as the ex–Mrs. Pfefferman, is especially great in her limited screen time. When Ali brings a container of “tofu schmear” to brunch, Light goes from griping to dairy-free in five dazzling seconds.)
None of this would work without Jeffrey Tambor’s beautiful performance as Maura. There has always been a gentleness at the heart of his acting, even when hamming it up on The Larry Sanders Show or not touching on Arrested Development. But here he’s simply transcendent, capturing the sweetness and terror of a woman presenting her true self for the first time. In an early episode, when visiting the apartment of a woman in her support group, Maura moves from room to room with the wonder of a child. She touches every dress, examines every piece of furniture. It’s a radical and deeply empathetic glimpse of the blurry line between self-creation and self-actualization. Maura has been alive for 70 years but is in many ways a newborn. She’s desperately fragile. She’s incredibly brave.
Much of Transparent’s first four episodes — the number that were provided to critics in advance — deal with Maura’s attempts to come out to her children and their varied reactions to the news. But the truly remarkable feat that Soloway accomplishes here is that, on a granular level, this new reality has been baked into the Pfeffermans all along. All three children have essential aspects of themselves that they’ve struggled to tamp down; all three have public faces at war with private truths. On Transparent, as in life, honesty isn’t an idealized destination, it’s a bomb that destabilizes everything in its path. I’ve never seen a show quite like it. I can’t wait to see more.