Early in the second episode of “Transparent,” the latest and best original series from Amazon Studios, Jeffrey Tambor’s transgender parent Maura comes out to her daughter for the first time. If you saw the pilot, which has been available since early 2014 via Amazon Prime, you know it’s not under ideal circumstances. Both are revealing secrets in that moment, but it’s Maura who confronts her own fears and reveals her true self to Sarah, her shocked daughter who was just cheating on her husband with an old college flame.
No one actually comments on how Sarah was making out with Tammy, the only morally upsetting issue unveiled, instead shifting focus to Maura (as they should) while she has an anxious conversation with her first born. “Transparent” is packed with nuanced moments like this one, and in each Maura handles herself with incredible grace. She’s strong, human, but imperfect, as we later learn when, in a frustrated rage, she resorts to calling her loud neighbors “faggots” and throwing her shoe at the wall between them. Yet Maura remains the only wholly endearing character in “Transparent,” a fact highlighted not only by her one cheating-and-fine-with-it daughter, but her two more egotistical offspring.
Created by Jill Soloway (and inspired by her own trans father), “Transparent” follows the lives of the Pfeffermans as the family patriarch finally decides to move forward with her gender transition. Maura (formerly Mort) gathers her grown children together to tell them about her choice while still dressed and acting as their father, only to chicken out at the last second and instead reveal herself to her three adult kids individually.
And they really are “adult kids.” Sarah, Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffman) are almost stereotypical L.A. millennials in that none of them hold real jobs, real conversations or act as adults are expected to act.
Sarah, the oldest, is in what she sees as a loveless marriage with Len (Rob Huebel). She’s “overwhelmed” with her duties as a stay-at-home mom and naive enough to believe what she’s doing is hard work (despite having full-time help). Meanwhile, Josh, whom Maura describes as her “very successful son,” works in the music industry (whenever he feels like it) as the manager of an up-and-coming band. He’s sleeping with one of the leads, as we discover is habit for the man-child since an early age, but his biggest problem is similar to Sarah’s. He’s not happy, and he doesn’t know himself.
Ali is the most fascinating of the group because she suffers from the same conditions — self-absorbed pride without evidence of any accomplishments — but is aware of her oddball status. Hoffman portrays her as a woman intent on maintaining her flaws, both inward and outward, as an excuse before-the-fact. If she doesn’t try, she can’t fail. But if she doesn’t face herself, she won’t know who she really is — it’s this common denominator for the family’s younger generation that brings everything back to Maura, who’s obviously inflicted her own identity crisis onto her kids without ever knowing it.
Soloway, who also wrote and directed the episodes, repeatedly flashes back to Maura’s life as Mort, first showing him returning to his office at school where’s he’s a professor of political science. Within, he ignores a student’s pleas for help with her homework because he’s about to try on a new dress. Later, he runs into Mark, later known as Marcy, another closeted transgender who’s pretending to flip through men’s magazines when he really wants to pick up some transgender pornography. Mort chats with Mark as his kids wait for him outside in the car. The earlier scene ends with him returning home to his family, staring at them from the driveway as he contemplates who he is (and, presumably, who they are because of him).
Maura’s life both before and after her decision to come out is heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure — and those do not apply respectively. Maura becomes captivatingly sympathetic as she stares solemnly at her family within, but it’s made just clear enough why she’d choose her family’s happiness over her own. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Jeffrey Tambor, Maura is the loveliest character on “Transparent,” an idea difficult to deal with because the current goings-on remind us what her secret did to her family. While her kids’ rotten lives can’t fully be blamed on the repressed sexuality of their father, Soloway’s deconstruction of their mentality leaves little other motive for their madness.
It also left this viewer cold to the sufferings — imagined or otherwise — of these three self-centered brats. While understanding the need for their narcissism, allowing them to carry half or more of the show at times feels like a burden too large for such an unpleasant crew. Like Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” you can only watch hapless know-it-alls fall on their faces so many times before you don’t want to help them anymore. But seeing as critics were only given four episodes of “Transparent” as opposed to four years of “Girls,” there’s still time for the delicate balance Soloway is shooting for to find its equilibrium.
After all, “Transparent” is a nuanced work incomparable to anything found outside of HBO or Showtime (it certainly feels like it belongs on the latter network, given the copious amounts of sex). Bingeing it, though easy to do given its mode of release, may be the wrong form in which to absorb the thoughtful tale. There are layered moments worth doting on longer than the few seconds they last. In the aforementioned scene above, when Maura comes out to her daughter, Sarah asks, “Are you saying you’re going to start dressing like a lady all the time?” Maura lightly laughs and says, “No, honey. All my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”
The kicker itself makes for enviable prose, but the question bares equal consideration: who would ask that? Why then? Why with those words? “Transparent” is anything but its title’s most obvious definition — and everything of its intended one.
“Transparent” Season 1 is scheduled to be released in full on Amazon Prime Friday, September 26.
READ MORE: Why ‘Transparent’ Creator Jill Soloway Feels the Amazon Pilot Process is ‘Revolutionary’