The streaming, binge-watch content model is one of the innovations that has most rapidly revolutionized television in the past couple of years, and Amazon is getting in on the action that Netflix pioneered, with the series “Transparent” dropping on Friday, September 26th. While “Transparent” continues the trend that “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” wrought, it may revolutionize New TV not with its content release model, but with the content itself.
Created and largely directed and written by “Afternoon Delight” filmmaker Jill Soloway, “Transparent” brings a uniquesensibility, tone, and sensitivity to the small screen (whichever you may prefer). Concerning an upper/middle class Los Angeles family whose patriarch, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is in the process of transitioning into life as a woman, the series defies easy genre classification, encompassing elements of family melodrama and quirky indie comedy in a way that feels decidedly revelatory.
As a quick primer for the series, here’s a rundown of some of the main reasons why you should be canceling all of your weekend plans so you can binge on “Transparent.” You’ll thank us on Monday.
1. Jeffrey Tambor
Tambor plays Maura Pfefferman, formerly Mort, who is in the process of finally coming out as transgender to her children and to her community. Tambor is stunning in this performance, a far cry from the caustic and irrepressible George Bluth, Sr., from the iconic series “Arrested Development.” As Mort in flashbacks, Tambor is stooped, worried, edgy, but as Maura, it’s as though a burden is lifted; she is effervescent, lively and graceful. Tambor is lovely as Maura, which it’s not a quality usually ascribed to the veteran character actor. Of course the journey that Maura is on is not an easy one, and “Transparent” doesn’t shy away from the discrimination Maura faces in starting a new life, one that she hopes will include her tight-knit, if flawed and co-dependent trio of grown children. Tambor’s performance is probably the best you will see on any screen this year.
2. Jill Soloway
Soloway is emerging as one of the best auteurs of the current film and television landscape. She wrote for and produced shows like “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara” (clearly she knows complicated family dynamics inside and out), but her directing is unparalleled. She won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival 2013 for the excellent and underrated “Afternoon Delight,” a film about the sexual hang ups and explorations of a bored Silverlake housewife, starring Kathryn Hahn (who appears in a supporting role in “Transparent”). Soloway brought a generosity of perspective to that film, allowing for the stories of all the major characters to have a fair shake, resulting in a film imbued with a deep moral ambiguity that wasn’t afraid to go to the darkest places, while also allowing for some redemption. That same approach is brought to bear on “Transparent,” which is stacked with immensely complicated characters. Viewers may find their emotions and sympathies constantly shifting and evolving from dislike to love to understanding to confusion again. Soloway isn’t afraid to let her characters be both unlikable and lovable at the same time, a line that frequently is still unblurred on TV.
3. The Pfefferman Kids
The three siblings, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) might all simultaneously seem the most hateful and most lovable on the show, all three navigating the pitfalls of love, intimacy and sexuality. Landecker, perhaps best known as Louie’s mother on “Louie,” portrays the eldest sibling who is breaking free from her Stay-At-Home Stepford wife persona and perhaps finds inspiration in her father’s bravery. Duplass, not as often seen onscreen as his brother Mark, could achieve dreamboat status as the adorable yet jerky music exec Josh who seems addicted to love (with everyone). And Hoffmann brings the Hoffmannaissance to the next level as a whip-smart oddball, who as her father says, “can’t quite seem to land.” All three performances are breakouts for these criminally underused actors, and provide the real backbone to the series arc.
4. The Supporting Cast
The rest of the ensemble is aces as well, most notably Judith Goddamn Light, stealing the show from a bunch of show stealers every time she’s onscreen as Maura’s ex-wife/mother to the brood. She’s aged up to play Shelly, but she’s completely pitch perfect as the quintessential Jewish mom. Melora Hardin goes full butch to play Tammy, Sarah’s long-lost college girlfriend, and is completely riveting in the role (her wife, Barb, is played by excellent stand up comedian Tig Notaro). Bradley Whitford is a spot-on wonder in flashbacks as Mort/Maura’s old friend Marcy back in his closeted days, and trans actress Alexandra Billings is fantastic as Maura’s new LGBT friend Davina. Everyone’s favorite Portandia resident Carrie Brownstein appears as Ali’s long time BFF, and it’s great to see her in a non-sketch comedy role.
5. The Tone
The series’ tone defies genre conventions, balancing comedy and tragedy in a thematic landscape of identity struggle, intimacy and sex. The show seems to revel in finding comic moments in the absurd, with the characters reacting in ways that one might expect or not expect. It doesn’t feel appropriate to call it a drama or a comedy, because it is both of those things, but “dramedy” doesn’t adequately describe the largely humanistic and humane themes that “Transparent” does so well.
These are some of the reasons to watch and love “Transparent.” It’s one of the best things to watch this year: on TV, film, the internet or otherwise.
“Transparent” will be available for streaming in its entirety starting this Friday, September 26th.