Occasionally a television show aspires to be more than a television show. David Simon does this well; The Wire is about the decline of an American city and Treme is about an American tragedy. In the hands of Aaron Sorkin the results, as entertaining as they may be, are often very heavy-handed.
Transparent is much subtler but no less ambitious. It’s an immensely topical show, which makes it an important show. It’s also a show that delivers on the promise of it’s name.
If you fear spoilers don’t read any further because plot points will be discussed.
The show begins with us meeting three siblings , Sarah, Josh and Ali going about their morning routines. Sarah is rushing her kids off to school. Josh is working with two beautiful singers. Ali is exercising with a friend. They each get a phone call from their father inviting them to dinner because he has something he wants to tell them.
Throughout the episode we learn about the siblings. Josh is in the music industry and is working on producing a hot new group. Ali is dealing with depression and pretty numb to life. Sarah is living the life of a dissatisfied wife with a distant husband. They all agree that their father is going to announce that he has cancer.
We also meet their father Mort. Mort and their mother divorced years ago and he’s been playing the field since then. He’s got a reputation as a ladies man. We also learn that Mort has decided to transition and begin living life as a woman.
That’s the announcement that Mort plans on making, but one meal with his offspring changes his mind on telling them. It’s equal parts he’s not ready and they’re too selfish to realize Mort is struggling with something. The latter is readily apparent when Mort announces that he’s giving the family house to Sarah, which creates instant bickering among his children.
We see Mort at a support group, with other transgendered persons, talking about his feelings and struggles. It’s a pretty powerful scene and Jeffery Tambor gives Mort a quiet dignity that’s mesmerizing.
We also learn more things about Marty’s children. Sarah was in a serious lesbian relationship during college and her ex is back in town. Josh seeks comfort from an unlikely source. Ali gets the courage to ask the physical trainer she’s crushing on for help, which turns slightly sexual.
Transparent is a great pilot. It hooks you in and leaves you eager for the next episode. It also deftly handles the issue of gender identity, which is a growing pressing concern.
Transparent will naturally draw many comparisions to Six Feet Under (with good cause; Jill Soloway, the director and writer of Transparent’s pilot also worked on Six Feet Under.) Both shows deal with L.A. families. Both shows feature siblings dealing with life changes for their father. Transparent could very well be Amazon’s Six Feet Under.
That said, there’s a surprising lack of diversity in Transparent. Imagine Six Feet Under, only without Rico and with a mere hint of Keith and you’ve essentially got the pilot for Transparent.
Also, the siblings are all on a spectrum of barely sympathetic characters. It’s partially by design; Mort is supposed to be unsure about sharing the news with his children because of their behavior. But the problem is that the audience might find them equally unappealing. However that’s something that can be resolved in the very next episode.
Gaby Hoffman’s performance is wonderfully fearless. Ali seems on the verge of a breakdown, and Hoffman portrays that simmering perfectly. As Josh, Jay Duplass gives an interesting performance. There’s a hint of wealth beneath a surface that’s barely scraped. And Amy Landecker’s Sarah really captures suburban malaise. Also, Judith Light turns in a remarkable performance as Mort’s ex-wife.
Hopefully Transparent will make it to series. It is one of those important shows. But if Amazon decides not to go further, it will certainly go down as a missed opportunity of epic proportion.