Streaming TV Series Review: Transparent

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura in “Transparent”

Transparent streams on Amazon Prime

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Let’s say your family is gathering en masse for the upcoming holidays – and let’s say that after the fourth football game and the third mash-up of the Thanksgiving leftovers, it’s agreed that there’s been enough pigskin and turkey to last until 2015. Or at least until the following Sunday. What to do? Well, new television studio Amazon Prime is serving up a binge of a whole other kind: namely, the family drama/dark comedy Transparent. Having debuted in fall, all ten 30-minutes episodes can be viewed in whatever timeframe desired. And, as a plus, Transparent‘s family issues may make your own seem almost manageable. Almost. Now there’s an unexpected Thanksgiving blessing.

Created by Jill Soloway (Best Director, Sundance, for 2013’s Afternoon Delight, longtime writer/producer for Showtime’s United States of Tara and HBO’s Six Feet Under), the series is loosely inspired by Soloway’s own parent who transitioned from male to female.

In the second episode, eldest daughter Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker) struggles to say the right thing once she learns that her septuagenarian father Mort is transitioning to Maura (Jeffrey Tambor). She tremulously tells her parent, “I’m so glad you get to be who you are … that’s what we should all be.” And it’s that yearning to find a true sense of self that threads throughout this series.

While Mort-turned-Maura has finally embraced her destiny after many decades — her wobbly, high-heeled steps gingerly striking out on a daunting new path — Mort/Maura’s three adult children haven’t a clue as to who they are or what they want. “Impulsive” appears to be the buzz word for this Pfefferman gang, who will throw themselves at anything and/or anyone, running as far away from themselves as humanly possible.

(l to r) Amy Landecker as Sarah, Jeffrey Tambor as Maura in “Transparent”

Silverlake wife and mother Sarah rushes into the arms of an old college sweetheart, shedding husband and home without taking so much as one reflective glance backward. Music producer and middle child Josh (Jay Duplass) is addicted to the concept of love without understanding what actual commitment entails. With his bed acting like a kind of sexual carousel, he spins from one conquest to the next, steadfast in his belief that each one-night stand will morph into some Nirvanan love dream … replete with an eventual bushel-full of beautiful bouncing babies to boot.

And Ali, poor ineffectual youngest child Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is a raging id in search of love, career, direction, a dollar, a decent hairdo, you-name-it. It seems that it’s everyone’s fault but her own that real life hasn’t happened as yet. In Ali’s world, life is supposed to kneel down on her rented doorstep, a bouquet in one hand and Google map directions to the bluebird of happiness in the other.

Though on the face of it (no pun intended), the concept of a transitioning parent seems like an audacious choice, Transparent isn’t as edgy as is sounds. It turns out that it’s not the edge that’s made this Amazon series a critical hit — it’s Tambor. As the show’s brilliant center, Tambor delivers a character with such a soulful interior that we blink twice. Didn’t this actor play the over-the-top George Bluth Sr. and his wacky twin Oscar in Arrested Development? Wasn’t he the blowhard sidekick Hank from The Larry Sanders Show? Yet here, with his downcast mouth and deliberately slow vocal rhythms, his Maura appearing to weigh every word before speaking, measuring kindness against candor, Tambor creates a character like none other. He is woman AND man, protectively holding tight to a delicate female soul yet fearlessly unleashing male power when the occasion demands it.

Far from aesthetically pleasing, while Tambor’s Maura may be a lunking linebacker in lipstick … her beauty is evident from within.

Soloway frequently intersperses current scenes with 20-year flashbacks, throwing us bits of back story from the assorted characters’ evolutions … or lack thereof. But again, it’s Mort’s/Maura’s development that intrigues  — particularly in the exploration of the transvestite versus the transgender communities, and the prejudices that one group holds against the other. Playing Maura’s transvestite buddy, Bradley Whitford offers up a delightful surprise as a man who’s not afraid to wear a dress … just as long as it’s for fun, and he’s safely couched within the confines of an accepting group.

As for Shelly, Mort’s ex-wife, Judith Light is marvelous in the flashbacks (although her tacky brown Dynel wig looks much phonier than any hairpiece that Maura’s transvestite friends might wear). But however bad the wig, “phony” virtually screams whenever Light’s sixty-something Shelly of current day appears on screen. Acting as if she were channeling some Yiddishe Mama from a 1960s Neil Simon comedy, with her thick-as-a-bagel-schmear Jewish accent, stooped posture and fluttering hands, consummate actress Light is inexplicably imbued with the spirit of a hammy high schooler taking the stage for the first time. Hopefully Shelly will calm down by next year (Transparent has recently been picked up for Season 2).

We rest assured in the knowledge that Maura is definitely on her way; we can only hope that Shelly and the kids can follow suit.

=====

Rating on a scale of 5 clothes encounters: 4

Season 1 Release Date (all 10 episodes): September 26, 2014
Created by: Jill Soloway
Cast: Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Melora Hardin, Rob Huebel
Rating: TV-MA
Running Time: 29 minutes per episode

Here’s the show’s trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

Speak Your Mind

*


*