“Are you saying you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?” Sarah asks her father, who stands before her in full feminine dress, hair and makeup.
“My whole life, I've been dressing up like a man,” her father explains. “This is me.”
This is the key conversation at the heart of “Transparent,” the great new series – which couldn't be more timely in subject matter, form or distribution – that Amazon is debuting on Friday morning. (You can already watch the pilot here.) To Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker), this is her father Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) standing before her in drag; to her father – who prefers to be called Maura – Mort Pfefferman was always the disguise.
“Transparent” comes at a tipping point for social awareness of transgender issues. Earlier this year, the editors at Grantland took a pounding across the internet for publishing a story that outed a trans woman (who committed suicide during the course of the story's reporting). “Orange Is the New Black” co-star Laverne Cox became the first trans actress to be nominated for an Emmy, and she appeared on the cover of Time back in May. Other current shows like “Glee,” “The Fosters” and “Orphan Black” have featured ongoing trans characters, and the topic is becoming more ubiquitous in pop culture with each passing year.
Into this moment arrives the perfect show for it: the tragi-comic tale of Mort's transition into Maura, and all the damage done to herself and those she loves because it took so damn long to get to this point.
The series was created by Jill Soloway, a longtime writer on “Six Feet Under” who later ran “United States of Tara” (whose heroine took her own trips across the gender barrier) and won a directing award at Sundance last year for her film “Afternoon Delight.” She has abundant experience at depicting unconventional family life, and she very quickly turns Maura and her kids – wealthy stay-at-home mom Sarah (Amy Landecker), music industry player Josh (Jay Duplass) and chronic screw-up Ally (Gaby Hoffmann) – into three-dimensional characters with a rich shared history that's conveyed with a few careful brush strokes. (While Maura – still presenting as Mort – writes Ally the latest in a series of checks to fund her layabout lifestyle, she asks, “What happened to 'The Price Is Right' money?” Ally explains that that happened six years ago, and wasn't all that much money to begin with. That's all we need to know about her, and their relationship.)
The show looks gorgeous and displays an instant command of both tone and this particular pocket of life in Los Angeles; Soloway is incredibly confident in introducing us to the parts of the show that are more universally relatable (a marriage gone sour, a disappointing child), knowing that we'll then follow her into more unfamiliar territory – not just with Maura, but the many disreputable behaviors her kids get tangled up in. Early episodes involve frank talk, and at times depiction, of abortion, infidelity, drug use, and more; Soloway has said one of the themes of the show is “Will you still love me if…,” and it sure feels like she's challenging the audience – and succeeding with this member of it – to love her characters even if they do some terrible things.
Through its early episodes (I've seen four), “Transparent” digs deep into the minutiae of a gender transition like the one Maura is undergoing. It deals with practicalities like proper pronoun usage(*), and trying to use a public restroom when you still look like a man in a dress. But it's primarily about the emotional experience of the change, from the perspective of both Maura – who regrets having waited until this advanced age to do it, and now feels isolated from her family even as she finally accepts herself – and her kids.
(*) Having written about Tambor for a long time, I have to admit to reflexively referring to Maura as “he” many times in my notes; imagine how much more difficult it would be if you had grown up with Mort as your father.
The “parent” part of the title is just as important as the “trans” part. At a support group meeting, Maura laments that her kids “are so selfish. I don't know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.” As the show goes along, we see that Maura's own issues made her a sub-optimal parent, and we see her problems reflected in the struggles the three adult children are going through now to accept who they are and what they've been through. Sarah, for instance, is tempted by the return of her lesbian lover from college (Melora Hardin, almost unrecognizable from her “Office” days in a butch haircut and wardrobe), while Josh has to come to grips with an important relationship from his past not being what he thought it was.
The cast – including Judith Light, embracing the Jewish grandmother role she was always destined for, as Maura's ex-wife – is uniformly superb. Tambor's mainly known as a comic actor, and while the show is laced with wry, dark humor, Maura herself is a very serious and sad character – she didn't grow up in a world of trans awareness(**), and thus is only coming out now to better enjoy what time she has left – and he captures every poignant nuance of her transformation. The three Pfefferman siblings are complicated characters who often behave awfully, but Landecker, Duplass and Hoffmann all find the vulnerability and confusion inside these three dysfunctional adults, and also do well (Hoffmann in particular) at carrying the funnier end of the series.
(**) If Amazon weren't battling Netflix for streaming video supremacy – with “Transparent” its most impressive volley yet – I could imagine a joke in an upcoming episode where one of the kids tries to tell someone about Mort's transition into Maura by saying, “You know, like the hairstylist on that show about the women's prison.”
The television business is going through its own remarkable transition now, exemplified by a show of this quality debuting on a streaming video service. (Ironically, the “Transparent” opening credits begin with a VCR tape's image flickering, a relic of a technological era that feels a thousand years old.) Amazon has been chasing Netflix in this field for a while – it's just about the only area where Amazon is an underdog to anyone (like when Michael Jordan played baseball) – and here they're even releasing the show Netflix-style, with all the episodes being made available at once. And they're doing it during the first week of the network TV season, when audiences are being flooded with viewing options, and may not have time to give five hours to a quirky indie family dramedy.
I think Amazon executives know that “Transparent” is that good – it's the best new TV show debuting anywhere this fall, by a long stretch – and therefore don't care that it's appearing at such a crazy time. They're throwing down a gauntlet – or maybe a demure satin glove – and saying, “This is us. Not bad, eh?”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: I've seen four of the 10 episodes, and will be treating “Transparent” the way I've usually handled Netflix all-at-once releases, revisiting it sometime in the (hopefully near) future to talk about the full season after I've watched it all. For those of you who start plowing through the whole season on Friday, please avoid major plot details in the comments, as there will be a chance to talk about the rest of it once I'm done.