Matthew Munhall | Thursday, October 2, 2014
The past few years have seen an embarrassment of riches for American TV viewers. As “TV” watching has become increasingly divorced from an actual TV set, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are among those who have begun developing original programming. With so many content creators competing for eyeballs, there are more good series now than ever before.
Not only has the quantity of quality programming increased, but so has representation of different groups of people. While the broadcast networks are largely far behind when it comes to diversity, these Internet media companies have made it a priority. Hulu’s hilarious “The Real Housewives” parody, “The Hotwives of Orlando,” features six female leads; Grantland’s Molly Lambert commented that “watching six women be funny together for prolonged periods of time is still so relatively exotic.” And of course, Netflix’s massive hit “Orange Is the New Black” has done fantastic work portraying women of all different races, ages and sexualities.
The latest is “Transparent,” the entire first season of which is currently streaming on Amazon. Created by Jill Soloway, the director of “Afternoon Delight” and a writer on “Six Feet Under,” the series follows the Pfeffermans, a wealthy, Jewish family from Los Angeles. Over the course of the first few episodes, family patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) tries to come out as a trans woman to his adult children and begins publicly transitioning to Maura.
Some trans activists have criticized the show for casting a cisgender man in the main role; it is a legitimate critique given how few trans actors are cast in film and TV projects. That said, Tambor is revelatory as Maura. He imparts Maura with a sense of wonder — a fantastic portrayal of someone finally able to be themselves after seventy years of pretending to be someone else. “My whole life I’ve been dressing like a man,” she explains to her oldest daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker). “This is me.”
Maura’s children are the type of characters often branded as “unlikeable.” “They are so selfish,” she tells her support group. “I don’t know how I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.” They are selfish — all three regularly ask their father for money and hardly work — but they are also struggling with their own identities in interesting ways. Sarah abruptly leaves her husband for her college girlfriend. Josh (Jay Duplass) is a serial monogamist, moving from woman to woman in search of stability. Gaby Hoffmann is particularly great as Ali, who flounders the most as she tries to fire out what she wants to do with her life and embraces her own gender fluidity. From the first episode, the Pfefferman siblings have the kind of lived-in intimacy of real sibling relationships that often takes several seasons to develop.
Like “Louie” and “Girls,” “Transparent” is a series with the sensibility of independent film (ironically, given it was produced by an online shopping behemoth). The 10 episodes of the first season move at a slow pace, lingering on each moment and avoiding any kind of clear resolution. Its tone is a perfect mix of uproariously hilarious and heartbreakingly gorgeous. The show is also beautifully shot, depicting a real version of Los Angeles that is the perfect backdrop for these messy, complicated characters.
Solloway described the creation of the show as a process of “privileging the other.”
“People who would normally be ‘other-ized,’ — you know, women, trans people, queer people — get to be the center of things,” she told Vulture.
It is a strategy that has paid off well creatively, beautifully embodying the lived experience and complex relationships of the Pfefferman family. “Transparent” is one of the year’s best, most unique shows — and it’s not even on TV.