Transparent was talked about in the beginning for reasons that had nothing to with the quality of the show. The two main points of discussion were the subject matter (transgender parent comes out to her three kids), and the distribution model (the series can only be seen on Amazon). Both of these are fruitful areas for examination … you can’t really talk about the series without looking at how it uses its transgender setup, while the Amazon-ness of the show is part of the ever-changing world of series distribution.
Transparent reminds me in some ways of The Cosby Show. That series, which was massively popular in ways that no longer happen, brought an African-American family into our homes every week. One of the most important aspects of this was that the Huxtables were presented as just another TV family. Yes, they were black, and yes, they were upper-middle class, but in the way the parents dealt with the problems that arose in everyday life, The Cosby Show wasn’t very different than other similar sitcoms. This was a step forward: an African-American family represented America’s families.
Transparent doesn’t shy away from the difficulties and the joys of coming out. But what you soon notice is that in its basic structure, Transparent is a sitcom about an American family, just like The Cosby Show was. And this family, the Pfeffermans, is beautifully drawn. There is great pleasure to be found in watching this flawed, recognizable family filled with people much like ourselves, portrayed by such a strong cast. And once you’ve settled in to this family sitcom, you notice that it’s serious as often as it is funny, and the family, recognizable as it is, is involved in the transition of Jeffrey Tambor’s Mort/Maura. The transgender parent distinguishes this family from most others, and creator Jill Soloway makes certain to keep Maura’s transition at the center of the story. But again, I think it works like The Cosby Show, as the “average” American identifies with African-Americans or trans parents because we see ourselves in the families.
There’s another thing going on … it’s not exactly a secret, you’ll notice it soon enough, but it didn’t get much play in the lead up to the series’ launch compared to the transgender angle. This is a Jewish family, presented in much the same matter-of-fact way that the Huxtables were an African-American family. The Jewish Daily Forward called Transparent “the Jewiest show ever”. The Pfeffermans are not particularly religious, but they are culturally Jewish in a rather traditional way.
None of this is straightforward feel-good stuff. The show gives off a good feeling in the way it treats its subject matter with honesty and sensitivity, but one way it is honest is that nothing goes smoothly, people have their bad days as well as their good days, families have fights and then come back together. Jeffrey Tambor is a good example of this: his Maura is heartfelt, at times tentative and at other times blossoming, but Maura is not a perfect human being, certainly not a perfect parent, and the depth of this character and how Tambor plays it makes Maura more human.
Tambor isn’t the only cast member to do great work here. Everyone is excellent … they even found three young actors to play the three siblings in 1994, and you believe all three grew up to be the adults we see most of the time. I’d single out Gaby Hoffman, but then, she’s a favorite of mine, so of course I’d single her out. Carrie Brownstein plays Hoffman’s BFF, and you know that makes me happy. And Kathryn Hahn plays a rabbi who is as complex as any of the characters … this isn’t the usual stereotypical one-note rabbi we often get.
I haven’t returned to the distribution model. In some ways, there’s nothing new here. Netflix has had a few streaming series by now, and the market for streaming is getting bigger by the minute. But Transparent isn’t just a good show for Amazon. It’s one of the best new shows of the year. It’s odd that you don’t find it on your cable box, but if/when you do get access to the series, it’s no harder than finding and streaming Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. In fact, given the prevalence of people binge-watching entire previous seasons via streaming, the only really new thing about what Amazon is doing is that the series is binge-able from the start … you don’t have to wait a year.
And I’m sure people who enjoy binge-watching finished the ten episodes of Transparent’s first season in a day or two. Me, I took about six weeks to get through it, and that was good … I’m not normally a binge-watcher.
A second season has already been promised, and the first season did a great job of making me want to know what is in store for these characters. I don’t watch too many half-hour sitcoms, and maybe Transparent isn’t quite a comedy so it fits in more with my taste preferences. But I’m already a sucker for this one. Grade for Season One: A.