It’s hard to use the words “best TV show of the year” when there have already been so many best TV shows of the year. But Transparent, which premieres tomorrow on Amazon Prime Instant Video, deserves to be up there. If it isn’t the best TV show of the year, it’s certainly feels like the most important.
Transparent follows Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a father who comes out to his kids as a woman. It may sound like a simple premise, but the series understands just how complicated that step is. Jill Soloway’s script, partly based on her own experiences with her dad, takes its time to reveal Maura to the audience, let alone the other characters. It is not until 20 minutes in that we even see her in full make-up, delicately panning to her face, as she delivers a monologue to a support group.
Jeffrey Tambor puts in a career-defining performance as Maura. Softly spoken and quietly insecure, he exclaims and murmurs daintily like he’s been doing it for years – occasionally lapsing into deep-voiced swearing and show-throwing when Maura gets angry. But it’s in the small gestures that the actor really finds her. Maura constantly touches her face and hair, her long lips and craggy features sagging into troubled sadness when attacked by unsympathetic women in dressing rooms. Even his walk changes, as Maura becomes more at home in her brightly coloured dresses; a stunning contrast to the awkward, hurried man we see in brown-hued flashbacks.
The rest of the cast are equally open – not least because Soloway lays them all bare. Transparent treats every body on-screen with unflinching honesty. So when Gaby Hoffmann’s young Abi, a 20-something stoner who has never fulfilled her brainy potential, gazes critically at herself in the mirror, we do too. When Jay Duplass’ record producer Josh has sex, it actually seems like the real thing. It is Amy Landecker as Maura’s eldest, Sarah, though, who has the most intimate arc on display, as an old flame returns from the past to distract her from a stale marriage.
These subplots, whether it’s taking the step to get a personal trainer or committing to a relationship, all come back to the show’s central theme of finding one’s self: a path the Pfeffermans are pushed down when Maura confronts them with her true identity.
“Are you saying you’re going to start dressing up as a lady all the time?” Sarah asks, after they discover each other in embarrassing circumstances. “No,” Maura explains. “For my whole life, I’ve been dressing up as a man.”
That first discussion, which takes place at the end of the first episode, paves the way for a series of unveilings and flustered reorientations from people who are usually concerned with nothing but themselves. “How have I raised such selfish kids?” Maura wonders aloud, before they hijack his planned coming-out speech with a debate about what kind of cancer he’s probably got.
It is to the ensemble’s credit that these messed up characters all earn our sympathy, despite belonging to the middle-class-and-white bracket that could easily render them spoilt and unlikeable. Duplass brings an earnest affection to his doting manchild, Landecker is believably uptight and even more believable when letting loose, while Hoffmann’s facial expressions alone are hilarious.
“I renamed him Ma-Pa!” she confesses to Sarah, somewhere between giggling and crying. Soloway and the cast judge the tone perfectly – half-hysterical, half-melancholic – creating a host of characters who engage because they all feel like actual humans; an emotional realism reinforced by the casting of transgender performers in the background.
Every detail feeds back into that honest tone, which allows Transparent to tackle its central subject with sensitive tact and candid humour. If Orange Is the New Black blazed a trail with its all-female ensemble and transgender performers, Transparent takes it one step further; awareness of transgender rights is increasing in society and the media and this feels like a part of that breakthrough.
“Boy, it is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see…” muses Tambor, who is careful to introduce Maura at her own speed. That pace, always gentle and never sluggish, is what makes Transparent stand out from the crowd; despite its richly textured ensemble and subject matter, each episode is just 30 minutes long, a length that would, on a traditional broadcast channel, force it to rush, cramming in as many jokes as possible. Soloway, though, relaxes, finding time to pick out little moments you would normally miss, such as Maura cautiously trying on sunglasses from another woman’s dresser.
Amazon’s Head of Comedy, Joe Lewis, says they consider Transparent to be a five-hour movie with nine intermissions rather than a 10-episode series and that is exactly how it comes across. Chapters don’t stop and divide themselves into standalone chucks; episodes of Transparent flow seamlessly into each other, continuing scenes in a way that is both urgently addictive and yet always understated. Even wild tangents involving drugs and threesomes fit into the free-range structure. Quite simply, we want to see what this fascinating clash of people will do next – or how they will react to each other. Once you’ve started watching Transparent, binge-viewing isn’t so much a recommendation as a natural response.
On 1st February 2013, House of Cards landed on Netflix. With all 13 episodes available to stream immediately, it felt like the start of something new. 18 months on, Transparent could be the start of something bigger. It is exactly the show that Amazon has been waiting for – and precisely the kind of show that it should be producing. Unique, edgy, moving and funny, Transparent is a deliberately opaque look at problems that are far from see-through. After a string of middling programmes, Transparent confirms Amazon Studios as a creator of the kind of challenging and original content you would expect from HBO at its peak, while also shining a rare spotlight on the complexities that face a transgender person trying to find their own feet.
Transparent is the most important TV show of the year. It just might be the best, too.
Transparent is available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 26th September, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like unlimited UK delivery and 350,000 eBooks available to borrow, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.