There is so, so much to like about Amazon’s new series “Transparent,” starting with the fact that all 10 episodes will be made available at once on Friday (Sept. 26). Creator Jill Soloway and her cast and crew have made a touching, intimate, humor-laced family drama that is easily the best new show debuting this fall, and the way you’ll be able to watch it holds a not-small part of its power.
At the summer TV press tour in July, Soloway (a veteran of “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara”) talked about seeing the show — about an older man (Jeffrey Tambor) transitioning to a woman and the reactions of his three adult children — as a “five-hour movie” rather than a series of 10 half-hour episodes. “We had some great conversations about what it means to end an episode not with ‘We’ll see you in a week’ but ‘We want you to keep going right now,'” she said. “And so that certainly had a lot to do with the shape of the season.”
That recognition of the possibilities of streaming helps give “Transparent” a mesmerizing quality. In the four episodes Amazon sent out for review, the half-hour installments flow effortlessly into one another; action is almost continuous, and the show is free of the act breaks and episode-closing beats that characterize traditional TV (and a lot of what we watch on nonlinear platforms too).
That Soloway gets a career-highlight performance from Tambor and sterling work across the board is also a huge plus. Tambor is Maura Pfefferman, who when we meet him is taking his first tentative steps toward transition. His family knows him as Mort, and when Maura comes out to elder daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), she asks why he’s dressing up as a woman. “My whole life, I’ve been dressing up as a man,” Maura replies. “This is me.”
Maura’s journey is what powers the story, but Sarah and her siblings Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman) are all struggling to realize who they really are as well. Sarah is in a rut with her husband (Rob Huebel) and finds herself inexorably drawn to an old college flame (Melora Hardin). Josh, a music producer, finds himself in a bind with the artist he’s also sleeping with, and Ali is looking for anything to bring some shape to her formless life.
On the surface, none of the kids comes off as very likable. But “Transparent” digs so deeply into the lives of its characters that it’s hard not to sympathize with them, at least. Everyone has been stuck at some point, or felt uncomfortable in their own skin, or had feelings for someone that weren’t requited, and Soloway and the cast absolutely nail those emotional beats.
At the center of the show, Tambor delivers such a nuanced, resonant portrayal of Maura that you may never see him as George Bluth or Hank Kingsley again. It’s especially fascinating to watch his physical performance: When the character is presenting as Mort, Tambor plays him as a fairly typical man of his age — a little bit checked-out from the lives of his kids and giving off the sense that he doesn’t move quite as nimbly as he used to. As Maura, though, Tambor’s movements take on a tentative, almost delicate quality, as if Maura is trying to conform to some notion of how a woman carries herself or, more likely, that it’s all so new she doesn’t want to break anything.
The new age of television we’re experiencing at the moment can be overwhelming for a fan. There simply isn’t time to see all the good things that are out there. The flip side of that, though, is that the growth of new platforms has allowed a show like “Transparent” — which is hard to imagine an HBO or Showtime even at their most generous putting on the air — to find a home and, one hopes, thrive there. Whenever you might get around to “Transparent,” it will be time well rewarded.