Flip through the channels and you won’t see much originality on this fall’s television lineup. We’re being inundated with promos for comic book small-screen remakes (Gotham, The Flash, Constantine), new projects starring TV mainstays (Debra Messing’s The Mysteries of Laura, Kate Walsh’s Bad Judge, Katherine Heigl’s State of Affairs), and adaptations of stories that already worked well on foreign networks (Gracepoint, based on Britain’s Broadchurch, and Jane the Virgin, based on Venezuelan telenovela Juana le Virgen).
But over on Amazon, which has been creating original content since last November without the acclaim or mainstream success of rival Netflix, Transparent, a unique show has debuted. The series focuses on the experiences of a chronically underrepresented population: transgender people.
The dramedy comes from Jill Soloway, who produced HBO’s Six Feet Under and United States of Tara. Her deft and delicate hand has guided lots of storytelling that has dealt with issues of gender and sexuality. Transparent centers on a dysfunctional, depressive, Los Angeles–based Jewish family whose patriarch, Maura, née Mort Pfefferman (played by Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor), comes out late in life as transgender.
Soloway told NPR that she was inspired to tell the story of a person in transition at 70 because her father only came out as transgender several years ago. Telling the story of gender transition is a political act as much as a cultural one, and the show’s creator is aware of that. She has gone to great lengths to tell Maura’s story sensitively. Soloway told The Independent that more than 50 trans people have been hired to work on the production, including 16 trans actors and additional on-set consultants and producers. The set’s bathrooms are even gender neutral.
All this behind-the-scenes work would mean nothing if Transparent weren’t good—but the groundbreaking show is stellar. Featuring an ace cast that includes Who’s the Boss’ Judith Light as Mort’s ex-wife and Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker as her and Mort’s grown children, the show is an ensemble piece. Though Maura’s transition is the big-picture conflict creator that sets the show in motion, each of the characters has sexual issues and is going through a sort of transition too.
Hoffman is a lost, disaffected slacker with seemingly no income, Duplass is a philandering Peter Pan music producer with commitment issues, and Landecker is an affluent housewife in a loveless marriage who is still hot for a former girlfriend. Their stories, though they may play on familiar character types, are so fully formed and specific that from the first 10 minutes of the pilot they seem like real people you might know offscreen.
That realness is Transparent’s greatest strength. Some in the LGBT community will criticize the show for hiring a cisgender actor to play the main transgender character. Yet Tambor’s familiarity to audiences—whether as Hank on The Larry Sanders Show, George Bluth on Arrested Development, or the father in the Hangover movies—might make his Maura more relatable and understandable to audience members who may not have met anyone who is transgender. It will be like an old friend coming out. Additionally, as Orange Is the New Black’s talented Laverne Cox has brought visibility for trans performers and issues, hopefully Maura Pfefferman can do the same for an older, less glamorous (perhaps less “able to pass”) segment of the community.
I have so far only seen the show’s pilot. Its additional 10 episodes will all be released concurrently on Sept. 26 on Amazon—perfect for binge-watching. But with a pilot that is well shot, acted, and scripted, the rest of the season can’t be anything but outstanding.
Think I’m being hyperbolic or placing too much faith in an untested quantity? Look back at any of your favorite half-hour shows’ pilots. They usually run from the abysmal to the overly expository and only find their rhythms and cast chemistry over time. Not so with Transparent, which, on first look, feels fully realized. I’m dying to know more about the Pfefferman clan, their relationships, their dysfunctions, and their reactions to and relationships with their father’s transition. Sept. 26 can’t come soon enough.