In recent years, character likeability is a debate that’s taken on heated and ethical arguments from both sides. Vulture magazine declared this the age of the streaming TV auteur, and to ask for likeable protagonists seems akin to asking for laugh tracks back or no nudity. It signals you’re unsophisticated, maybe prudish. It’s easy to justify Walter White because he’s so far removed from an everyday selfish person. But in Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” the lens is a little closer to home — which makes the characters equal parts heartbreaking and redeemable, by the skin of their deft characterization and acting.
Amazon Prime Streaming
With light-washed cinematography that casts the show under its signature elegiac gaze, we’re introduced to the Pfeffermans, a secular Los Angeles Jewish family. At its center is Mort/Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, “Arrested Development”), a retired professor who reveals her identity as a trans woman in the stages of single, senior life. The first episodes of “Transparent” are tasked with Maura’s (née Mort’s) attempts to breach the gap between her identity and the world, which most substantially consists of her three children. The gap between self and world is a recurring theme that connects the Pfeffermans: all are struggling to fit their inward identities into a jagged, sometimes uncomprehending outside. But as wise Maura notes, part of that is because they lack the ability to see beyond themselves.
Together, the Pfeffermans have rich and warm chemistry. In a pilot scene that evokes “Annie Hall” ’s Easter dinner, the camera restlessly circles around the dining table with Pfefferman chatter trickling (actually, flooding might be a more accurate word) in from all edges. Soloway, especially in the family scenes, has a knack for taking the pulse of Jewish identity and writing it in with all its idiosyncrasy. It also makes for some perfect comic beats: “We come from Shtetl people, your Grandma Rose actually ate lettuce with her bare hands,” Maura says, a gory slash of barbeque sauce on her cheek.
For all their loving familiarity, “Transparent” ’s cast is equally self-centered, though the show neither moralizes nor sentimentalizes. Rather, it watches the characters under a nonjudgmental gaze, not unlike Maura’s. Her children are difficult and good by different notes, and we come to understand them through a distinctly parental survey. There is Sarah (Amy Lendecker, “A Serious Man”), a suburban mother whose self-assured façade belies a fundamental uncertainty of her life; she’s married to a Len (Rob Huebel, “Human Giant”), whose name explains everything there is to know about him. When old college flame, Tammy (Melora Hardin, “The Office”), re-enters in a haze of pantsuit-rocking, aviator-wearing cool with a career as an interior decorator (“designer, actually,” Tammy interjects), we practically see a lightbulb go off above Sarah’s head. Sarah’s attraction to Tammy represents a complex sexual identity, but also yearning for Tammy’s iron-grip seize on life. In a telling scene with Len, Sarah asks if Tammy and her kids can come over for a play-date. Len responds with the verbal equivalent of a shrug at her sexual identity: “I love lesbians.” We learn Sarah has a habit of harnessing these passive discontents until they tumble into big, abrupt changes. Almost immediately as her affair begins with Tammy, Len is swept out of the picture. These rapid narrative beats mirror Sarah’s own sudden decision-making: she picks up one life and plunks it into another.
Part of “Transparent” ’s strength in capturing queer identity is that it isn’t attempting to suggest the universal; it’s concerned with particular character studies. Sarah and Tammy in no way represent the entire gay community, just as Maura isn’t a spokesperson for the trans one. Because of this, “Transparent” gives the characters room to breathe outside of impossible obligations to perfectly define an entire group.
“Transparent” also takes the modern view that sexuality is tangled amid gender and sex, but that doesn’t mean it’s all a homogenous knot. Take the terminally drifting Ali, played by lovely Gaby Hoffman (“Girls”), who can’t seem to get unstuck from her own patterns. Both Hoffman and Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”), who plays her best friend Syd, gained their acting chops from playing quirky character roles, and in “Transparent,” they flesh those characters out with adjoining crevices and shadows. Hoffman plays Ali with a precocious intelligence, even as a thirty-something year-old. In every scene she’s in, Ali imparts a melancholic quality that will feel achingly familiar to every viewer who’s dealt with depression. She is also the most ‘queer’ of the Pfefferman children, in how she moves between identities freely and uninhibitedly. Throughout Ali’s various relationships, the edge of her undirected intelligence damages most often. In one scene, she swiftly dismantles a sexual relationship with two male friends by suggesting they’re gay. She’s high, they’re high, it might be true, but we get the sense that Ali isn’t new to these situations. Her self-destructiveness is a growth of her intellect and talent — her potential nervously hangs over Ali’s constant wheel-spinning.
What Ali lacks in self-awareness, Josh, the sole brother played by indie darling Jay Duplass (“The Mindy Project”), renders with hyper image-consciousness. He’s the successful kid with a high-paying job in music, the hot band girlfriend (in a band named Glitterish, go figure) and the house to go with it. But he also has the childhood babysitter with whom he has a disturbing sexual relationship that’s bred a host of problems. However, by end of season Josh has moved the most of the children, even miraculously self-actualized a little.
Josh’s storyline also serves as one of the many entrances into the origins of the Pfefferman family dysfunction. Through flashback, we learn Shelly (Judith Light, “Law and Order: SVU”) and Mort were too entrenched in marital problems to be the parents the Pfeffermans needed. In present day, Maura’s quiet grace radiates on screen, and how she tolerates her children is almost saint-like. The mostly judicial use of flashback fills in how her composure was formed. In a way, the flashbacks cast the young parents of the same type as their present-day children: richly hewed but oh-so-troubled.
Tambor brings masterful sophistication to his portrayal of Maura. Seeing her integrate who she always was into the rest of her life is educating, never preachy, her navigation of a world which prefers to neatly bifurcate people, like using the lady’s restroom or bumping into an old colleague, executed exquisitely. We never worry about Maura, and in every episode we see her come more into herself. The show is centered around Maura, but she acts as a springboard for the rest of the Pfefferman family where the real turmoil lies. “Transparent” takes the asymmetrical form of many shows today with its loose plotting and natural dialogue. Its quietness doesn’t hinder its power, and watching the show in its entirety, it’s hard not to feel emotionally overwhelmed at times. Pace yourself with “Transparent” and marvel over its detail — this show stands up to it.