In the pilot of Jill Soloway’s Transparent, bodies are in full view. There’s a recurring motif where the human forms of the people that make up the Pfefferman family — the children, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), who has spent most of her life as Mort, and is just beginning to publicly and fully transition from male to female — are splayed out in repose, like Renaissance figure paintings. It shows the obsessions of this show, the way that bodies, and what we do with those bodies, whether its something like our gender presentation or our sexual choices, shape the very contours of our lives.
Transparent is an extraordinary television show. After seeing the first four episodes (the full ten episode first season will be available on Amazon Prime this Friday, September 26), it’s clear that this show deserves every bit of critical acclaim and hype that it is getting and will receive. It’s a sensitive and empathetic piece of work, looking into the melancholy lives of the well-to-do, secular Jewish Pfefferman family of Los Angeles at the point where Maura’s decision to come out leaves a big wake in the lives of her children, her ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light), and her community.
“Boy, it is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see,” Maura tells Ali in the pilot, and that’s the premise that fires up these first four episodes. Ali is a brilliant mess, turning to sex and drugs in order to be in the world, and the results, more often than not, are just a scrim for her unhappiness. Josh, the record producer who may or may not be a hipster, also gives a surprising and sexy performance. He has it all on paper, including a series of impossibly gamine musician girls to sleep with; but his sexuality is hiding other, more loaded secrets, and to see him wrestle with what his life is versus what he wants is a moving experience. Sarah, the oldest, has the husband, the kids, the minivan, but when her ex-girlfriend from college comes back into her life (Melora Hardin), she makes a bunch of rash, fascinating decisions.
Like her kids, who she mourns as “selfish and self-centered,” Maura is also at a crucial point in her life — she wants to come out and live fully as Maura, and her first steps towards this identity are fraught with risk and uncertainty. She attends a transgender support group. She makes transgender friends who encourage her to tell her kids about who she is, which she attempts, tentatively. She’s about to sell the Pfefferman house (a — yes, symbolic — gorgeous glass edifice in Los Angeles) in order to move into a smaller place, a queer-friendly apartment building. There’s years of complications in Tambor’s fantastic performance. A body trying to reconcile two different lives and expectations in one single form. It’s careful, lived-in work.
There’s shades of Six Feet Under, where Soloway was a producer and writer in this show — and, additionally, Transparent does feel like it’s set in the same world as her feature writing/directing debut, 2013’s Afternoon Delight (Sarah, in particular, could be buddies with Kathryn Hahn’s conflicted housewife from Delight). Soloway’s particular brand of softly lit Los Angeles ennui is becoming one of her trademarks as a writer and director, but what’s even better is her refreshingly frank, funny, and real take towards sexuality. The actors are raw and vulnerable in their (many) sex scenes, and the sex moves both the plot and the characters’ feelings forward. It’s great to see a show that has a realistic and complicated take towards the role that sex and sexuality plays in our lives. One other aspect of Transparent, so far, that speaks to the show’s excellence is the familiar faces who populate the world — Carrie Brownstein, always a pleasure, and Bradley Whitford in particular. These actors are nearly unrecognizable at first glance, and part of that is because they’ve disappeared into this story, becoming part of these characters.
Ultimately, Transparent is a notably intimate show, driven by emotion, feelings, and the secrets that we try to keep to ourselves. Meeting the Pfefferman family has been a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they’ll go from here. Soloway has a handle and tone on this family story that’s assured and unlike anything else on TV, and that’s just one of the many reasons that Transparent is a outstanding, moving, and uncommonly surprising work of television that deserves a big audience.