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Amazon is serious about making television shows--which is to say that they're actually doing it, rather than just sending out press releases. On Friday, the entire first season of Transparent became available for streaming, fulfilling the implicit promise made by the pilot. That pilot first appeared in March as part of a bigger slate of potential pilots, and now it's finally becoming a real live child.
In this metaphor, becoming a real live child means that enough episodes have been created to make it an actual series--yes, it's a Pinocchio reference. And although it might have been clearer had the phrase been "real live boy," for reasons that will soon become evident, the phrase seemed more apt when it was rendered gender-neutral.
What it's about
Three self-obsessed adult siblings have their own lives and problems. And then they find out that their father (Jeffrey Tambor) is transgender. That's really all we know from the pilot, because the first child doesn't learn about it until the very end of the episode. But the premise seems sound. It certainly makes for a quality pun in the title, which is something that doesn't happen often enough: Trans-parent, see?
It's also the story of how the children are navigating their own lives, which they seem to be doing with varying degrees of resigned disappointment. Sarah seems unhappy in her marriage to a rich, dismissive jerk (played by Rob Huebel, of all people), while Josh is equally unhappy in his lavish mansion. He's constantly bedding blonde women, which is supposed to be a sign of a successful life, but it's not working for him. Ali, the third child, ends up convincing a muscular gentleman she met in the park to shout at her while making her do push-ups. That seems like it could be regular exercising, but there's definitely an edge to it.
What makes it interesting?
Most transgender characters on television are played for laughs, which can be vexing if you don't automatically start guffawing at the idea. And even when they're done with respect, like Laverne Cox's character on Orange Is the New Black, they tend to have their stories focused on the time after the transition. Transparent is the story of the transition itself, and how the people around Jeffrey Tambor's character react to it.
It's also interestingly difficult to talk about, since Tambor's character is named either Mort or Moira. And English is not built for a situation where someone changes pronouns. As of the pilot, the character had not actually said much, since so much time was spent setting up the children. There's a lot of interlocking jealousy and old grudges that seem to inform the way they bicker among themselves. And they don't exist just to react to the main plot. Sarah is the first to see her father with long hair, jewelry, and a dress, that's also the first time she gets seen making out with another woman. So there will probably be a lot of surprised questions and careful explanations coming out of that.
What makes it not so great?
It's hard to judge from just the pilot, but there's a lot of mumbling. It's one thing to strive for realism, but when everyone in a scene is talking at once and none of them are articulating at all, it doesn't really advance the plot. Parenthood gets away with it because that show typically uses the crosstalk just to highlight the messy, chaotic nature of life in a family--but when the scene is important to the plot, the characters get a chance to speak one at a time.
What's the math?
That's a good question. There aren't a lot of shows with this premise, but creator Jill Soloway has a great track record of provocative TV, and her previous work can inform this equation. Let's say Six Feet Under (for which she wrote several episodes and served as co-executive producer) plus The United States of Tara (executive producer and showrunner) multiplied by Parenthood (no connection but a similarly brilliant ensemble).
So how is it?
With the understanding that this was written based solely on the pilot episode, it seems good. It's certainly unusual, which is nearly the same thing. The cast is terrific: You've got Judith Light as family matriarch, divorced from Jeffrey Tambor, and I predict the amazing Gaby Hoffman will shine even more than she did in her recent guest star stint on Girls.
The show has gotten some flack for not casting a trans actor in the lead role, but Jeffrey Tambor is such a good actor: Even without his work on Arrested Development, he was great on The Larry Sanders Show. All indications are that this is an interesting, funny show on a topic you haven't seen a million times. That's worth a few hours of your time, isn't it? Darn right it is.
How many hours should I watch at once?
Four. It might seem like a lot, but this way you can knock the series out in two sittings and then we can talk about it! Was it great? I bet it was great.