‘Oy gevalt’: ‘Transparent’ season 1 in review

It's been nearly two months since Amazon debuted the first season of “Transparent,” and more than a month since Amazon ordered a second season of the Jill Soloway-created drama. I've been meaning ever since to write a spoiler-filled book-end to my original review, looking over the entire 10-episode first season, but other things kept getting in the way. Better late than never, here are many thoughts on this show's great first season coming up just as soon as you let me know if you see any mustard…

It's been so long since I watched the season that my thoughts are more fragmented than they might've been had I written this right after the renewal announcement, though my overall feeling remains the same as in that first review: this was gorgeous, intimate storytelling, among the very best things I watched all year. But let's go straight to the bullet points and bounce around different characters, stories, and themes:

* The show reached its creative/emotional peak – or maybe just had its most uplifting moment – with the contentious Shabbos dinner at the end of episode six. Maura's behavior before and after that scene, in both past and present, is all over the map, as would be appropriate for someone making this huge transformation after a lifetime of struggle. But in that one moment, as she defuses Len's anger and takes charge of the situation, she is every bit the parent and leader of this family that she has struggled to be for so long. It's an incredible moment from Jeffrey Tambor (and from Rob Huebel, who's rarely been asked to play a dramatic role like this), and a beautiful piece of writing that deserves to be reproduced in full, just to look at the way that Maura is able to touch on so many issues of blame and fault and gender and humanity in such a small amount of time, and simultaneously apologize to Len while laying down the law for his future engagement with the Pfefferman family:

“This is my family. Leonard, I am so sorry. This is my fault. I should have called you. Honey, I should have taken you out to lunch and we should have talked. But I didn't do that. And I'm sorry about the 'Mort' and the 'Maura' and the 'he' and the 'she.' I'm just a person. And you're just a person. And here we are. And baby, you need to get in the whirlpool or you need to get out of it.”

Just fabulous, all around.

* Yet the show resisted making that moment into some kind of clear demarcation point for Maura's transition and her role within the family. The Trans Got Talent show is a fiasco in terms of Maura's attempt to connect with the kids, and though the experience leads her to reconnect with Shelly – the two of them acting closer than we saw them in the flashbacks to their marriage – there are several instances in the finale of Maura hijacking Ed's funeral as if it's really her coming-out party. The argument with Ali at the house in the finale is as ugly as it is well-balanced: Maura has a point that Ali's a screw-up who has put off adulthood forever by mooching off her father, but Ali also has a point that Mort letting her cancel the bat mitzvah as an excuse to go to the cross-dressing retreat was incredibly selfish, and helped turn her into a person who would run away from all responsibility. Because this is the first major series with a trans character at the center, Jill Soloway might have felt the impulse to take the Sidney Poitier approach and make Maura a noble and flawless standard-bearer for the movement. Instead, she made her main character every bit as messy, flawed and at times unlikable as her non-trans wife and kids – allowing her the complexity and humanity so that Maura isn't just a symbol, but a character.

* This subject matter is pretty new to me, and I frequently found myself struggling with both pronoun and proper name usage in taking notes on the show, particularly whenever we got a flashback to Maura's days as Mort. I found more consistency the longer I watched, but I also found myself drifting back to “Mort” and “he” whenever Maura was behaving badly.

* Can we talk for a minute about the amazing job Eyde Belasco did in finding young doppelgangers for Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass and, especially, Amy Landecker? We know what Hoffmann looked like in 1994, but if teenage Ali wasn't a dead ringer for that, she looked very much like what we could imagine Hoffmann could have been back then. And my jaw dropped the first time I saw flashback Sarah.

* The full-length flashback in episode 8 also went deep on a subject Soloway touched on briefly when we spoke before the series premiered: the complex relationship between different kinds of trans people. It's not a monolith, and we got to see just how alone Maura could feel even at a retreat like that, because she's a woman born in the wrong body, while Bradley Whitford et al are guys who just enjoy dressing as women. I also loved the mini-“Trophy Wife” reunion with Whitford and Michaela Watkins, who did a great job playing a woman trying to do her best with a situation she didn't realize she was marrying into, and the way that informed the Maura/Shelly relationship. Shelly has spent 20 years thinking Mort was another cross-dresser – “It's his little private kink!” – and is only now coming to grips with who and what her husband is.  

* The season does a great job of tracking how different relationships come together, fall apart and come together again: the way that Sarah and Len in some ways feel more connected after they've split than when they were together, or how Josh can convince himself that his feelings for Rabbi Raquel are different than all his previous relationships, even as we can suspect that Ali was doing Raquel a favor by telling her about Josh's history (even if her motives for doing so were less than pure).

* That said, I think Ali's best friend Syd having long-standing feelings for her felt like perhaps one blurring of gender or sexual identity too many for the season. Obviously, those questions of identity are a major theme of the series, and the idea that Ali would herself experiment in the wake of her father's announcement – leading to the hilarious “4 out of 5 Pfeffermans prefer pussy” scene with the siblings – felt organic to the story being told. But I worry about this becoming, weirdly, like the moles on “24,” or the secret dolls on “Dollhouse,” where if any character on the show can be revealed to be gay or trans at any time, it takes the power and surprise away from the idea. 

* My only other significant complaint about the season was the way they dealt with Ed's death in episode 9. The previous episodes hadn't really suggested his condition was that dire – he was badly diminished, but still capable of slipping out to go to the convenience store – so Shelly's desire to euthanize him played less as a mercy killing than her being fed up with the inconvenience and one-sided relationship of being Ed's caretaker. If the idea was that he got substantially worse over the span of the season, that wasn't conveyed well.

* I also saw some objections to the introduction of Josh's biological son Colton in the finale as perhaps one twist too many, but it worked for me. It fits what we know of Josh's history with Rita the babysitter, and the show's larger questions about how hard it is to be a parent when you don't really know who you are. Plus, the idea of this incredibly Jewish family trying to absorb this very Gentile young man was already paying comic dividend by the end of the finale, and I imagine will be a good source of humor in season 2.

* How did people feel about Ali's hallucinatory experience for the start of her date with the transman? It wasn't quite like anything the show did before or after, but was an interesting way to look at her stereotypical expectations for the date versus the more mundane reality. Is it something you'd want to see more of in season 2, whether from Ali or another Pfefferman?

I'm sure there are other topics I could touch on – like whether Tammy is the coolest character on the show (for being unwavering in her support of Maura) or the least cool (for the unnecessary remodel of the Pfefferman home) – but I've already delayed this review for so long that I'd just like to publish it already so we can resume our discussion of this great piece of work.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com