Gender is a construct, sexuality is a fluid spectrum, Judaism is a vast sea, and Transparent is a real joy. The new ten-episode series, from creator Jill Soloway, may end up being responsible for putting Amazon original content on the map. But I can’t say I care what it does for Amazon. Transparent’s major achievement is putting itself on the map.
The series stars and relies on Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Mort Pfefferman. Mort was assigned male at birth but is finally transitioning and living as Maura — she just has to tell her adult children. The first to find out is Sarah (Amy Landecker), the oldest, who herself is grappling with her sexual identity. She’s married to a man (Rob Huebel), but after bumping in to her college girlfriend (Melora Hardin), she’s questioning everything about her little-boxes-on-the-hillside L.A. life. Next to find out is Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), whose failure to launch seems to be on everyone’s mind. Finally there’s Josh (Jay Duplass), a record producer who gets laid a lot but doesn’t really make genuine connections with people. It sounds like a lot of premise when I write it out like that, but Transparent is as gentle and flowy as one of Maura’s many caftans.
Maura’s the Pfefferman making the most massive, seemingly drastic change. But there are lots of ways that her transition is the most simple, too, because at least she’s sure. We see in flashbacks the desperation and anxiety she lived with while presenting as male, and we can see in everything about her the relief of living as who she really is. The other characters don’t seem very sure about anything, including whether or not they eat dairy. How would you know you knew yourself? the show wonders. There’s no real answer to that, on the series or in life. You just kind of keep going, trying not to confuse satiety with empty numbness. Sometimes it goes okay.
Soloway’s previous work, particularly Six Feet Under (where she was an executive producer) and Afternoon Delight (the Sundance darling she wrote and directed), is very obviously part of Transparent’s DNA: The primacy and constancy of sibling relationships is an essential part of the series, as are frank and often funny conversations about sex and gender politics. Sometimes praising dialogue as naturalistic feels like a gentle way of excusing characters for not saying anything of significance, but Transparent’s dialogue sounds both very authentic and very poetic and searching. “It is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see,” Mort says. Well … yeah. But also yeah. No one specific thing happens; everything is just kind of in a state of constant happening. Sure, there’s the Day you come out to your family, or leave your partner, or confront an abuser, and those are big days. But so are the days where you decide that you need to do those things. And so are the days when you acknowledge the truths of these ideas for the first time. And the days when you hear someone say for the first time, you know, I’ve done that that thing you’re afraid to do, and I’m fine. Life never really feels like discrete moments, it just becomes those when we tell our stories and want to leave out the parts where we stalled or failed or chickened out. Part of why Transparent feels so fully inhabited is that it leaves those moments, those days, that fallow period in.
I’m loath to call Transparent transcendent because the wordplay just feels so laboriously cute, but there it is. The knows itself, it knows its mission and purpose, and each part is in balance: The real estate is often posh, but the characters themselves are very casual. (Sometimes downright grubby.) The plot has a very small footprint — it’s just this family, really — but the ideas it covers are really huge. Stories about people who are trans feel newsy and timely, but the stories about not truly knowing your parents until you grow up, and even then just barely, are completely familiar. Transparent is a crystalline bird’s nest, beautiful and fragile and a little bit dreamy and magical, where you hatched and from whence you’re obligated to fly away.