Despite merciful efforts by broadcast networks to make the fall’s new offerings mostly avoidable/reprehensible, the mound of great television out there continues to pile up. As such, even those who pride themselves on the quality and volume of boob tube-age they consume need to be increasingly discerning viewers. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to keep up with everything worth watching, let alone risk investing some of said precious hours in trying something new (hence the year’s early network successes largely being spin-offs, or hitched to Shonda Rhimes’ wagon). Point being: even if you’ve heard all week why Transparent is the best new show of the fall, and one of the best of the year overall, it’s still tempting to write it off as yet another “prestige” program that you’ll maybe get around to eventually.
Release platform presents the first real obstacle to jumping in. Those happy to discover the likes of Frank Underwood and Crazy Eyes invading their Netflix accounts over the last couple years will have to decide if yet another streaming service is worth signing up for just to give Transparent a whirl. In this case, Amazon Prime is the gatekeeper, and thanks to their middling original TV offerings, and the lack of a Kevin Spacey-sized star to generate excitement, getting a Prime subscription might discourage those otherwise interested in joining the Transparent conversation during its infancy.
Then there’s the actual show itself, which might be an even bigger hurdle for some. Transparent is a prickly series at times, and paced like a crockpot. This isn’t to say it’s not accessible; if anything, the surface of Transparent is too easy to condense into familiar shorthand. The groaner of a pun that is the show’s title, combined with its aesthetic, make it seem like a rare bird for TV, but not other media. Tracking an L.A. family as they grapple with their patriarch coming out as transgender (trans-parent!), Transparent‘s plush setting, low-key dialogue, and on-hand Duplass brother make it easy to assume that creator Jill Soloway has simply turned a 90-minute indie movie into a 5-hour TV show.
It’d be an incorrect assumption, but a fittingly reductive one. Transparent is a show about what it means to be seen and understood on more than categorical terms, and like its central protagonist, something of a Trojan horse. Whereas Orange is the New Black hooked viewers with its yuppie-turned-yardbird premise, before surprising them with little-seen stories about race, gender, and class, Transparent does something of the opposite. Though Maura (nee Morty) Pfefferman’s male-to-female transition provides a strong spine for the season that’s worth following (especially when Maura is played by Jeffrey Tambor), Transparent is not socially-conscious roughage television designed to round out a healthy viewing diet. Rather, it manages to be astute in its exploration of changing definitions of gender and sexuality, while more generally focussing on the most toxic, hilarious, and antagonistically loveable TV clan since the Bluths of Arrested Development.
The connections to Fox’s all-timer family farce run much deeper than the presence of Tambor. The Bluths of Orange County and the Pfeffermans of the Palisades share the same navel-gazing habits that develop when you never have to keep one eye on your bank account, and are, just generally, kind of terrible people. The difference is that the Pfefferman’s lack a family member responsible for cleaning up their messes, and provide the audience a stand-in. Youngest child Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is a directionless lay-about overshadowed by her successful, but needy older brother, Josh (Jay Duplass), and her unhappily married sister, Sarah (Amy Landecker). Morty’s decision to start publicly identifying as a woman cracks off just the tip of the insecure, dysfunctional iceberg the Pfefferman’s have built up over their 30 years of being a family.