Arts tv review

The best show of the year is here — and it’s not on TV

Transparent, Amazon’s most recent original series, blends comedy with drama and encourages audiences to take a closer look at their lives


Created by Jill Soloway

Starring Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker, and Jay Duplass

Rated TV-MA

Now streaming on Amazon Instant Video

In recent years, video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Hulu have begun to offer original programming, with mixed results. One of these new shows is Amazon’s Transparent, the story of the Pfeffermans, a dysfunctional Jewish family from Los Angeles. Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), the patriarch, is a retired political science professor who decides to come out to his children as a transgender woman, Maura.

This announcement sets off a chain of events both comical and gloomy that will affect Mort’s children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman). The three children, all grown up, are in different stages of their lives. Sarah, the oldest, is a married stay-at-home mother of two. Josh is a successful music producer at a record label who is always dating a different person. Ali, the youngest one, doesn’t have a job and leads an erratic life. “She just doesn’t seem to be able to land,” Mort says.

One night, Mort invites all three of them to dinner in his mansion in the Palisades. “There’s a big change going on,” he starts, but his children immediately ask whether he has cancer. Afraid of their reaction, Mort decides not to come out to his children.

The next day, Mort, who now goes by Maura, admits failure to her support group. She commits to come out to each of her children individually, and the rest of the season examines these events and their implications.

It might be tempting to suggest that the show’s title is a pun on the main plot. Yet the title truly describes the show’s essence. The main characters examine how transparent they have been with their family. What secrets have they been keeping from each other? What secrets have they been keeping from themselves? The viewers, almost inevitably, have to ask themselves the same questions. The show is not really about Maura’s change, but its consequences for the three siblings.

The opening credits are particularly poignant. They combine family videos from birthday parties and weddings, with scenes from The Queen, a 1968 documentary about a drag queen contest in New York. Towards the end the date of the recording is shown: Jan. 1, 1994.

This is no coincidence. The show frequently flashes back to 1994, a year that would be key for the Pfeffermans. It is the year of Ali’s bat-mitzvah, an essential experience of the Jewish upbringing. It is also in 1994 when Mort meets Mark, another transgender person going through the same process. These two events, although seemingly unrelated, have important consequences in the first season.

The show also excels on most technical aspects. The writing is poignant and witty. Every episode is a complex depiction of the family’s conflicts that either ends in complete heartbreak or hysterical laughter but always leaves you anxious for the next. The show’s soundtrack combines oldies rock from musicians like Jim Croce or Bob Dylan with modern performances from Gotye and Vance Joy and adds depth to many scenes.

Transparent draws parallels with Tambor’s previous show, Arrested Development. Both shows are about rich, dysfunctional families in California. The lead characters in both shows place family at the top of their values and are willing to do anything to keep the family together. Maura thinks, “I can’t live without my kids,” which resonates with Michael Bluth’s slogan “family first.” The two shows explore marital problems, money disputes, and family feuds. They serve as constant reminders that family can’t be avoided.

The main difference between the two comedies is the way in which they interact with their families. Arrested Development pokes fun at Michael’s efforts to save his family’s financial situation. The characters in the show don’t change throughout the seasons. In Transparent, Maura has to deal with her selfish children as they join her on her new journey. We expect that the kids will grow up.

The entire first season was released on Sept. 26. It consists of ten 30-minute episodes, which are available to Amazon Prime members, though the pilot is free for anyone with an Amazon account.

Transparent has been nominated for two Golden Globes, including one for Jeffrey Tambor’s performance. Due to the show’s popularity and great critical reception, on Oct. 9 Amazon renewed the show for a second season to be released in 2015. This means that there is still a lot of time to catch up on what has been one of the most discussed shows of the year.