Amazon Has Finally Made Its House of Cards. It Will Have You Addicted.

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 11 2014 1:14 PM

Amazon Has Finally Made Its House of Cards

tambor_transparent
Jeffrey Tambor is the dad on the excellent new show Transparent.

Amazon

Last April, Amazon dove into the original programming arms race. It made eight comedy pilots, put them on the Internet, and then selected the best two to expand into full series. The original batch of pilots all had a DIY, goofy, occasionally experimental vibe, excepting Garry Trudeau’s congressmen comedy Alpha House, which alone looked like a show that could air on a old-fashioned, broadcast-to-a-television network. (It was one of the shows Amazon picked up). Last week, Amazon unveiled five new pilots, and it’s clear they have learned an important lesson about original content in the interim, one Netflix has long since grasped: If you want to make a splash as a fledgling provider of must-see TV, make something that could be on HBO. Call it the House of Cards precept: Your brand may be all about originality, binge-watching, and fresh business models, but that only works if you give the people a show that looks like one they already happily pay for. Amazon has finally made one of those.

Amazon’s new pilots are more professional and slick than the cute, homemade series it previously commissioned. The two dramas, Bosch, about a tortured LA cop named Hieronymus Bosch—yes, the show lays it on that thick—and The After, a post-apocalyptic drama from The X-Files Chris Carter that stars a French actress wholly unequipped to act in English, are both mediocre versions of network series, with additional cursing. They aren’t any good, but it’s easy to imagine some version of them airing in the summer on NBC. One of the comedies, The Rebels—if Major League were about a Los Angeles football team—is only better because it’s shorter. Mozart in the Jungle, created by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timbers and set in the world of New York classical musicians, is sweet and charming if a little unformed. It does, at least, feature Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo, a swashbuckling conductor with cockatoo hair, alongside television’s very first female oboist as a protagonist.

Advertisement

But towering above all of these shows is Jill Soloway’s Transparent, an honest to goodness great pilot that feels—and I mean this as a compliment—exactly like one of those HBO shows with a 1-to-1 ratio of viewers to think pieces. Ostensibly a half-hour comedy, Transparent is very much like Louie and Girls in its relationship to humor, which is conditional. It stars Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker as three grown, Los Angelino siblings and Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light as their divorced parents—a cast that makes for as good company as it sounds like it should.

The show’s title is a pun, but Soloway, who was a big part of Six Feet Under, is interested in transparency as more than a play on words. Tambor’s character tells Hoffman’s, “It’s so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see,” and she shrugs him off, preferring to pretend she’s better at camouflaging her unhappiness than she actually is. Everyone in the family is hiding feelings they only think they are hiding, particularly about sex, desire, and gender, which, needless to say, are the most enticing kind of hang-ups.

The show has authenticity and specificity. The family is immediately recognizable as a very true-to-life nominally Jewish, L.A.-bred, casually super-affluent clan (I wasn’t lying about all those think pieces), and the siblings have a fluid, familiar way of taking the piss out of each other. By the episode’s last act, when we learn that the parent played by Tambor is coming out as trans—there’s the pun—I was already completely invested in the characters and a much lower-stakes version of the show. As Netflix has demonstrated, in this brave new TV world, it doesn’t matter what the ratings are—don’t even bother releasing them!—so long as a company gets the right people on Twitter chattering about the addictive properties of one of its shows. Transparent already has me addicted.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

The Only Good Thing That Happened at Today’s Soul-Crushing U.N. Climate Talks

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.