Transparent on Amazon Prime, reviewed: It’s the fall’s best new show.

There Is Only One Great New Show This Fall. It’s on Amazon Prime.

There Is Only One Great New Show This Fall. It’s on Amazon Prime.

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Sept. 29 2014 2:57 PM

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Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Still courtesy of Amazon Studios/YouTube
Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, in Transparent.

Still courtesy of Amazon Studios/YouTube

As if there was not enough to watch already; as if you were not paying for enough TV-dispensing services already; as if you were not borrowing enough passwords to avail yourself of TV-dispensing services already; it is time to figure out how to get Amazon Prime. Transparent, Jill Soloway’s 10 episode series, debuted on the platform on Friday. To call it Amazon’s first great series, or the only great series of the new fall season—both of which are true—is to damn it with faint praise. The title is a pun: As the show begins, the patriarch of the Pfeffermans, a close-knit, affluent, Jewish clan of Los Angelinos, begins to come out as transgender to her children. But it’s a pun that revels in both its meanings, rather than being some sitcom yuk-yuk highlighting that it is a series about a trans parent. It is, even more so, about transparency and secrecy, about what we reveal of ourselves and what we can’t help but reveal even as we try to keep it hidden. Start hitting up your friends for that Amazon password now.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

As the show begins, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), formerly known as Mort, has been living as a woman for some time. But she has yet to tell her three grown children: Sarah (Amy Landecker), the frazzled and caustic mother of two young kids in a bickering, sexless marriage to Len (Rob Huebel); Josh (Jay Duplass), a charming, scruffy, genial, and serial ladies man, who would be both hurt and proud to be called out as such; and Ali (Gaby Hoffman), the youngest and the most lost. Rounding out the ensemble is their mother, Maura’s ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light), who is high-strung, anxious, brittle, re-married to a man with dementia, and, as the sibling’s joke midway through the series in a bit of characteristic sexual matter-of-factness, perhaps the only Pfefferman left who likes dick.

Transparent has the feel of idiosyncratic, critically beloved comedies like Louie and Girls—the same tangential relationship to humor, the same occasional cringiness, and the same anthropological specificity. As has been noted, the Pfeffermans are very much cultural California Jews, with, among other things, a standing order at Canter’s. (The last line of the season, fittingly, is “oy gevalt.”) They speak to one another like family: in a tumble, often of old references, with a quickness both to anger and to letting go of anger, sibling order always thrumming underneath the dynamic—Sarah and Josh regularly picking on Ali, whom they are both closer to, with Ali moping instead of lashing out. 

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But Transparent is more realistic than Louie and Girls. Both of those series contain thunderbolts of verisimilitude, moments of recognition, when what is happening on screen aligns impossibly closely with the viewer’s experience of the world and the people in it. But they are also intentionally bizarre at times. Transparent contains few of Louie’s surreal segments and Girls’ larger-than-life, comically monstrous characters. Soloway, who worked on Six Feet Under, has wedded her very closely observed alt-comedy to a propulsive narrative, a marriage of very contemporary material and an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness plot. The series is structured like a drama, taking place over a condensed period of time, one episode often picking up where anther left off, no installment quite so self-contained that you won’t be desperate to know what happens next. It is, needless to say, highly bingeable.

Maura’s revelation both coincides with and catalyzes a huge amount of turmoil in her children’s lives. Sarah, who takes the news of her father’s change with relative equanimity, has already begun an affair with an old college girlfriend that rapidly escalates in intensity and seriousness. (“It’s love,” she tells Ali. “She made me squirt,” which indicates exactly how closely love and great sex are tied not just in Sarah’s mind, but in Transparent’s as well.) Ali, already exploring submission and destroying molly-laced threesomes with suggestions that the beefy, macho men involved really want to have sex with each other, becomes intensely interested in gender, both as a subject of study and as something to play out on a more personal level, whether by dating a female-to-male trans or dressing in everything from cleavage-baring gingham to suits and ties. Josh is most bothered by Maura’s revelation. He is dedicated to the idea of his father as a “pussy hound” and wonders if it doesn’t make everything that came before—his entire childhood—a kind of lie. His gender, his sexual identity, and his sexual rapaciousness are an immutable part of his own self-conception—in contrast to his sisters, who understand a thing or two about fluidity.

Amid all this change, Maura, despite instigating so much turmoil, becomes a kind of beacon of calm. Tambor does not camp it up—except when the occasion calls for it, like at a trans talent show. Even as events swirl around the Pfeffermans, Tambor’s manner, whether as Maura or in flashbacks as Mort, stays similar: slightly feminine, reassuring, soothing, with occasional bursts of intense anger. Maura has always been herself, even when she was Mort. This even holds for her relationship to Shelly. They are no longer married or having sex, but they support each other, as longtime companions would. In the climatic fight of the series, the siblings go off to lick their wounds, and the parents tend to theirs. Change is change, but family is family.

The Pfeffermans are all so recognizably human, that despite their idiosyncrasies—or rather, because of them—they have the feel of archetypes, characters that dozens of other characters from here on out will be like. (The only one who ever slips into caricature, and a Jewish one, is Light’s Shelly.) This is particularly true of Josh, who is jarringly recognizable as a kind of cousin to Nathaniel P., another modern, well-meaning, unknowingly noxious single man. Perfectly played by Duplass, Josh has any number of wonderful qualities: He’s funny, he’s dirty, he’s sweet, he has a sort of adorable, bumbling, apologetic Hugh Grant by way of shaggy hipster Los Angeles vibe, and, most of all, he’s interested in interesting women—whom he essentially collects, not through any deliberate maliciousness, but out of a kind of perpetual need. (Does Josh’s ease with women result from growing up in a house only of women, or from the more-damaging-than-he-thinks fact that he started sleeping with his 25-year-old babysitter at 15? Or both?) Josh loves women, truly. He loves them so much, that he needs to be loved by all of them. He connects so easily with women that it has become a kind of tragic flaw: He connects, but he can’t connect with just one.

Josh is the occasion for some of the most damning insights from Transparent’s other characters. In the pilot, Maura, speaking to Ali, says, “It’s so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see.” Again and again the show highlights moments in which its characters are far more transparent to the people around them than they are to themselves, whether they like it or not. Syd (Carrie Brownstein), Ali’s best friend, compares Josh to a serial killer, who thrills to see fear in his victim’s eyes. “Josh wants to be that person who sees in your eyes that you love him,” Syd says. Ali, who loves her brother, describes him as “not a sex addict, but maybe he’s a love addict,” to a woman he believes he’s smitten with.

But perhaps the most damning insight any member of the Pfefferman clan makes is Maura’s about her children’s myopia. In the pilot, talking to her support group, Maura wonders how she could have created three such selfish people, people who “cannot see beyond themselves.” But what becomes clear, slowly, paying off in a powerful reversal in the finale, is, of course, that they learned that selfishness from her.

A recent profile of Jill Soloway in the New York Times indicated just how respectfully she wanted to render a transgender protagonist, even though she cast a cisgender man in the role. And part of that respect is to reveal Maura to be as flawed as the rest of her brood. Maura, reflexively, tells her children to keep secrets among themselves. (She has spent her life keeping secrets.) Whether offering the Pfefferman’s gorgeous, expensive childhood home to Sarah, promising to give Josh money from the proceeds of the sale of that same home, or giving Ali money for school, she cautions them not to tell their siblings, seemingly more as a dysfunctional reflex than as a strategy. Over the course of the season, there are flashbacks to Maura’s past as Mort, climaxing in an episode-long flashback to 1994 when Mort went to Camp Camellia, a cross-dressing camp for one glorious weekend. But to go on that trip, Mort abnegated her parental responsibilities and priorities, behaving in her own, and not her children’s, best interests. She still can’t see it. And it’s this blindness, as much as anything else, that marks the Pfeffermans as family.