“This Is My ‘Six Feet Under'”: Jill Soloway on the Amazing ‘Transparent’

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Jill Soloway’s Transparent came bursting out of the gate during its February pilot premiere on Amazon Prime with such an exquisite, melancholy handle on tone and mood that its potential as the next great television series about the nature of families and love was obvious to any viewer.

What’s brilliant about the pilot is the way that Soloway holds back information. We meet, in short succession, the Pfefferman family. The kids are all lost: Ali (Gaby Hoffman) drifts, brother Josh (Jay Duplass), a record producer, is sexually avaricious, sleeping with his younger clients, and married mother Sarah (Amy Landecker), the oldest, reunites with her old college girlfriend, throwing her life askew. But when we meet Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), who had been living as Mort, a retired bachelor professor and the family patriarch, we meet someone on the verge of revealing an extraordinary secret. Maura is ready to tell her children about her transition from male to female, and yet she can’t quite get a handle on when to do it: “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves,” she muses in her support group meeting.

In the first four episodes, Transparent is wild, fresh, and complicated, delving into the lives this sensitive secular family of L.A. Jews (including the kids’ mother, played by Judith Light), and using one major moment to reflect and to get bone deep into the desires that fire up their own lives, for better and for worse. The result is tricky and delicate, walking a fine line of emotions and introducing a series of people who feel as well formed as our own friends and families.

It’s a wonderful, empathetic show that is quietly radical with its transgender character at the center of the story; and while there has been kickback regarding the fact that Tambor is a cis man taking on this role, the show itself is very concerned with providing a viable and visible voice to transgender actors and transgender issues. A piece on Soloway and Transparent in the New York Times Magazine shared the show’s relevance to Soloway’s own life, as her father had come out as transgender; it also delved carefully into how Soloway mined issues of gender in her writing while also making her set a safe, sensitive place for all gender identities.

For television fans, Soloway should be a familiar name as a longtime writer and producer on such seminal and risky shows like Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara. Her feature debut as a writer/director, last year’s excellent Afternoon Delight, won the directing award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. I had the chance to interview Soloway about her show when she was briefly in New York for a press junket — she had to take the red-eye back to Los Angeles to continue editing. The show will premiere on her birthday, in fact.

The first season of Transparent will be available on Amazon Prime September 26.