Jill Solloway's Transparent is one of the very best new shows of the year, and Amazon's first real breakthrough series in the attempt to compete with its rival Netflix in terms of original programming. It's a family drama that's heartfelt, funny, moving and cynical all at the same time, and though it may share some characteristics of a show like Girls in the way some of its characters are annoyingly self-involved, at its center it boasts a real, unbreakable family connection, no matter how screwed up the members are, and that's the emotional hook that draws you in.
The great Jeffery Tambor stars as Mort Pfefferman, a 70-year-old father of three who's undergoing a brand new experience in life- he's becoming a woman. Or more accurately, he's finally fulfilling his wish to live as Maura, the woman that he really is and feels he has been all his life. This is a fine line to walk in a comedy-drama series, and it could have easily been a premise exploited for cheap laughs, but the feelings and experience here are very real and Maura's crisis is handled in a sensitive and genuine manner. Through the first half of the season she must deal with coming out to her three grown children, all of whom are mostly selfish narcissists in their own way, but all of whom also may have inherited this unflattering quality from two deeply flawed parents, which is occasionally explored in flashbacks to their childhood throughout the season as well.
The thirtysomething kids are perfectly cast, starting with Amy Landecker as the oldest, Sarah, a married mother of two who's dealing with her own bisexuality and engaged in a passionate affair with old college flame Tammy (a hilarious Melora Hardin, funny because she's playing it perfectly straight). Landecker is openly expressive about her doubts, feelings and confusion, yet so believable in her relationships with her siblings, father and children- she holds the screen so well I could watch her in anything. Jay Duplass is the angst-ridden brother Josh, a successful music producer and womanizer who seems to be in control, yet has a desperate longing to marry and/or have children with any new woman he meets- a desire borne out of his own troubled sexual history involving a longstanding inappropriate relationship with the much older woman who used to babysit him as a kid.
Finally, Gaby Hoffmann is the youngest, and she has the largest supporting role and the most difficult, as the seemingly straight Ali who Maura identifies with most, recognizing his own gender confusion in her tomboyish nature and complete ignorance of what she wants in her personal life, in a romantic partner, in a job, etc. That's a tough part to play, but as the show goes on I warmed up to Ali the most, as her inner struggles are revealed bit by bit, culminating in a beautiful late season episode told entirely in flashbacks that explains Mort's disappearance one weekend on the date of Ali's canceled Bat Mitzvah, and parallels the demons that have been plaguing Mort for years and that formed the basis for his kid's inability to function as adults themselves.
There's no show on television (or the internet I guess) that deals so perfectly with the fluidity and confusion of issues like gender identity, sexuality and relationships, and the fact that every character is compelling and interesting in the way their stories are explored and told is a triumph of episodic writing. The fact that it's funny on top of it is even more of an accomplishment. There are bits to complain about (I wasn't the biggest fan of Judith Light as the cartoonish Shelly, Mort's ex-wife and the kid's mom at first, but even her story is illuminated, and she becomes humanized by the season's end), but the acting is so great, the chemistry between the cast is immediately realized (you believe these people are family no matter how damaged they are), and I am effortlessly drawn into every family member's subplots, and interactions with the other characters. Even the guest actors who come in are instantly at home in the ensemble, including Bradley Whitford as a cross-dressing buddy of Mort's in the 1990's, Kathryn Hahn as the female rabbi Josh falls in love with, and Carrie Brownstein as Ali's best friend and secret admirer. The secrets and hidden emotions that are exposed and carefully peeled back layer by layer make this one of the most complex, emotional and intelligent shows on TV. I couldn't recommend it highly enough.