Almost instantly achieving a beguiling and bittersweet tone, “Transparent” represents the sort of breakthrough destined to firmly put Amazon’s nascent original programming push on the map. Jeffrey Tambor stars as a family patriarch grappling with the decision to reveal to his grown kids his desire to be a woman. Jill Soloway’s grainy, indie film-style half-hour series contains more melancholy than mirth, with knowing insight about family dynamics and private pain. Delicately dealing with the transgender issue, the show features a familiar device — dad’s changed life has ripple effects — but establishes its ensemble as one worth watching (or bingeing) over 10 episodes.
Tambor’s Mort Pfefferman is introduced over dinner with his children: daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), who seemingly has an idyllic existence, but yearns for passion in a cold, loveless marriage; Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), a perennial slacker, always looking for a parental handout; and son Josh (Jay Duplass), a record producer whose casual attitude toward sex is rather quickly thrown for a loop.
But instead of going for a big “Ta-da” moment, Soloway takes her time, as Mort struggles to find the words to tell the kids about Maura, his alter ego. His long, slow journey to this point in time is illustrated through flashbacks of the skulking around in which he engaged to explore his conflicted nature during those years when he was still married (Judith Light plays his ex) and busily raising his family.
Soloway does find some humor amid it all — when the kids think Mort’s secret might be cancer, they discuss having him gift them money to dodge estate taxes — but Tambor, perhaps best known for his comedic gifts, brings genuine pathos to the character. And while there’s an obvious message to “Transparent” (which casts transgender performers in supporting roles), nothing comes across more soberly or powerfully than the image Tambor presents, in the most understated way, of a guy raised in a different time dealing with a life he never would have chosen.
Yet if Mort/Maura is the point of entry into the story, the larger lesson is that all of the Pfeffermans have issues, with each of the kids prone to self-absorption — and lives of desperation, quiet or otherwise. That Soloway (whose credits include “Six Feet Under,” as well as the indie movie “Afternoon Delight”) and company have managed to convey that without becoming maudlin or ever reducing Maura to a punchline is an accomplishment of the highest order.
Taking a page from Netflix, Amazon will make the entire season available at once, which seems well suited to the fluid nature of these episodes (four were made available).
Beyond some notable guest stars (Bradley Whitford among them, as an important presence in Mort/Maura’s past), “Transparent” takes an idea that feels pretty well played out — from “Parenthood” to “Brothers & Sisters” — and invigorates it not through a gimmick but rather via strong writing and performances. And while the show comes on the heels of the solid “Alpha House” and “Betas,” the series reinforces the sense that Amazon has the goods to become a serious player in the premium programming game.
The step up in class is crystal clear, and indicative of another kind of change, one that’s transforming the media landscape. For those hungry for quality shows without regard to source or delivery mechanism, that’s even better news than free shipping.