Every once in a while, a show arrives complete with inner life. Right in the first episode, the relationships are well lived-in, the writing is honest and bound up with the actors, the tone effortlessly embodies drama, comedy, and life’s absurdities, the contemporary homes and locations click, and the ensemble acting is filled with little moments and jewels.
“Modern Family” was one of these shows — fully crystallized from day one. The extended family, and the families within it, were all clearly drawn and effortlessly connected by the script. It instantly captured the dailyness and the small milestones of a certain set of people of a certain class in Los Angeles.
“Transparent,” a new half-hour series available through Amazon beginning Friday, displays the same kind of fullness and realization right away. It doesn’t drop broad humor like “Modern Family”; it’s too acerbic and dramatic for that. But, based on the first four of its 10 episodes, it arrives with the same cohesive, natural, grounded feel. In a way, “Transparent” is “Shadow Modern Family,” a darker, indie, and more sexually explicit version of the same LA slice of life, maybe after 15 years had passed and Phil Dunphy was beginning to wear dresses. It’s also a jauntier version of “Six Feet Under” — “Six Feet Under!”? — which makes sense, since “Transparent” was created by “SFU” producer-writer Jill Soloway.
The families in “Transparent” are a mess, for the most part, particularly when it comes to gender, sexuality, and romance. Each member of the Pfefferman clan is in some kind of impossible situation, where his or her true identity is somehow getting buried under society’s norms. The situations aren’t particularly comic on the surface — unless you think coming out and breaking up are laugh riots — but the show often seems to be smirking at how crazy and unexpected and sad life can be.
The most obvious example of Pfefferman angst is Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura, a college professor and divorced father of three adults who is finally choosing to come out to family and friends as a woman. Maura has no soft memories of her pre-transition life as Mort — she’s selling the family home, keeping none of the mementos, and moving to an apartment complex filled with LGBT people — but she loves her children and fears their rejection. “Five years from now, not one of your family members is going to be there,” a member of her transgender support group warns her. She’s trying to tell each of them slowly, appearing in front of them as a woman for the first time.
As Maura, the oval-faced Tambor is extraordinary. He is generally known for his more lunk-headed comic performances on “Arrested Development” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” so you initially expect him to milk Maura’s appearance in flowery dresses for laughs. But Tambor brings an unexpected fragility to the role, as Maura works to become more feminine and confident. You can see the perfect blend of relief and dread in his eyes, and you can see both the big and subtle physical changes he makes when playing Mort and Maura. He joins Lee Pace in “Soldier’s Girl” and Tom Wilkinson in “Normal” in delivering one of TV’s most sensitive and genuine trans turns by a non-trans man, quietly revealing the loneliness and longing at Maura’s core. And in one devastating scene involving a noisy party next door, Tambor also reveals the overwhelming anger.
The title refers to Maura, of course — a trans parent. But each of the characters on “Transparent” is revealing him or herself, in a way, trying every day to become more transparent. “Transparent” is really an ensemble show that spends as much time with Maura’s kids as it does with her. The oldest is Sarah (Amy Landecker), who is in a bad marriage to a wealthy man and has two children. Her college lover, a woman named Tammy (Melora Hardin), comes back into her life and complicates it. Landecker is memorable, particularly as she laughs on the verge of tears at the news of her father’s transition. She’s happy for Maura, but also feeling loss about her dad.
As middle child Josh, Jay Duplass is excellent. Josh is a successful music A&R guy living the LA dream, except that he’s trying to figure out how a very old sexual liaison has affected his current sense of emptiness. And Gaby Hoffmann is unforgettable as Ali, the youngest, who can’t seem to hold down a job. Ali is a free spirit whose imagination does not lend itself to practicalities. Hoffmann is becoming one of my favorite actresses, after her turns on “Girls” and “Louie.” As Ali, she has shed her inhibitions, and yet you can see that she nonetheless feels trapped in rudderlessness. Some of the best material involves the interplay of the siblings, especially when only two of them are together. The sibling relationships in “Transparent” are wonderfully authentic.
So Amazon has finally come up with a series that just might put it in the same league as
Netflix, which some are putting in the same league as HBO. And the more the merrier, if it means we get even more gems like “Transparent.”