Amazon TV binge-review: Transparent Season 1 (Episodes 5 to 10)
Ivan Radford | On 13, Jan 2015
Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“I’m just a person. And you’re just a person. And baby, you need to get in this whirlpool – or you need to get out of it.”
That’s Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) to Len (Rob Huebel), the husband of his daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker), just after he’s interrupted a rare family meal – and found out that his step-dad is now a step-mum.
It’s a wonderfully humanist outburst that sums up the sincere heart at the centre of Jill Soloway’s show. It’s also a wonderfully rare outburst, because Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning show doesn’t do shouting confrontations. What could be an EastEnders-style soap opera tackles its issues of gender with subtlety; less a series of outbursts and more a string of nuanced moments.
After coming out to Sarah and his other daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), Episode 5 (Wedge) sees the secret passed on to Josh (Jay Duplass), who freaks out completely. “Whatever you do in the privacy of your home is your business,” he reasons, looking like he just sat on a piece of pointy LEGO.
The show’s structure follows the ripple of discovery through the dysfunctional family, but after the halfway point, it develops into more than a simple tale of revelation and reaction; their dad’s coming out causes the entire ensemble to start re-evaluating their lives. “It’s a chance to start over,” they agree in a touching kids’ reunion by the old garden swimming pool.
Of course, any plans to pull together are pulled apart almost immediately – and not just because Sarah’s ex-girlfriend Tammy, with whom she’s now run off, is renovating Maura’s old home. If it sounds like a honking big metaphor for the rebuilding – and improving – of the family unit, Soloway’s scripts are smarter than that. Characters spend less time considering the symbolism of interior design and more time having sex. Lots of it.
Even that, though, is a significant act, as sexuality is central to the drama’s exploration of identity. There’s Landecker’s entertainingly neurotic Sarah, who finds herself torn between the intensity of Tammy and the familiarity of her estranged husband; there’s curious Ali, who enrols on a college gender course, only to be attracted to a trans teaching assistant with a manly beard; there’s even young Maura in flashbacks, trying to convince his wife to mix things up in the bedroom by letting him wear her pants.
All of the past sequences are superbly done, raising pointed parallels but never outstaying their welcome; the opening credits’ grainy home video style puts you in mind of someone rifling through the family’s history on a whim. That natural tone continues to mark Transparent out from the rest of the TV crowd: rather than relying on cliffhangers or plot twists, each episode flows into the next on the merit of pure emotional engagement. Lulled the slow editing and gentle music, you want to spend time with these characters, no matter what happens next.
There are surprises, sure, but not the usual, melodramatic kind. Episode 8 is a treat, as young Mort and a friend (guest star Bradley Whitford) disappear for a weekend to go to a cross-dressing camp. While there’s the obvious fun involved, it’s the tiny details that resonate; Whitford’s colleague putting on a blokey, macho voice when phoning his wife, and Maura smiling sincerely as they dance around a bar.
“You are a cunt,” they tell each other – an insult that takes on a whole new signifance after several hours with the Pfeffermans.
Jeffrey Tambor is nothing short of spectacular, growing more confident about who he is with every chapter. His deep voice, which mumbles with uncertainty, and fluctuating facial expressions are always underplayed, never letting anything ring false. He’s supported by an equally exceptional ensemble, with Duplass’ struggle to grow up enjoyably awkward and Hoffmann’s childlike embrace of not really growing up at all consistently hilarious.
“This is torture in a dress,” Ali exclaims, as she dolls herself up to be more appealing to her new partner, whose idea of a first date is dildo shopping. Josh, meanwhile, quizzes a trans stripper on the Internet.
Everyone, we learn, has their own perception of “normal” gender roles, whether it’s a dad going to a ball game or a woman shaving her bush. An incredibly charming Kathryn Hahn almost steals the whole show as a rabbi Josh fancies – and even she is automatically inserted the slot of potential wife by his Jewish mother.
Trying to communicate those ideas to others, though, is where it gets tricky. Sarah’s conversation with her children about their new grandma, for example, goes wonderfully wrong. “It’s magic!” says one, leaving everyone in the room slowly nodding.
Soloway slowly eases us into the complex LGBT world, one that most TV shows and movies skirt around or just ignore altogether. The camp reveals that even within the community, there are factions, from drag queens to transgender to transvestites. One camp attendee rules out anything to do with those who undergo hormone therapy. Another brings along his wife.
It all climaxes in the stand-out Episode 7 (Symbolic Exemplar), which sees Maura enter a Trans Got Talent content. Donning a wig and strutting her stuff on stage, while Maura’s exceptionally loud, drunk daughter sits in the audience, the themes of acceptance and self-confidence crystallise into something both immediately funny yet increasingly poignant.
“Now you’re just somebody that I used to know,” he sings out of tune, one moment defiant, the next melancholic.
Just as everyone has a perception of gender, though, Transparent shows us that everyone has a perception of themselves, or what they think they should be. Whether they’re learning they’re about to become a parent, or trying to convince an older man they’re not under-age, everyone’s trying to figure out who they are. Identity isn’t solely defined by gender; people are messed up, no matter what’s between their legs. That truth is what makes Transparent so special. It’s a fascinating drama driven by layered characters, not by stereotypes or formulae.
“I’m just a person,” rants Maura. “And you’re just a person.”
Baby, you need to get in this whirlpool.
Transparent is available on Amazon Prime Video, 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 – with a 30-day free trial.