Sometimes a slow start pays off.
Netflix may have overshadowed Amazon’s entrance into the world of original-content “television,” but the site formerly known as a bookstore is stepping into the klieg lights and undoubtedly onto the red carpet with Jill Soloway’s “Transparent.”
Debuting last year as part of Amazon’s rather gimmicky pilot process (where viewers vote on which shows should become series), “Transparent” combines the “House of Cards"-like thrill of watching an established star do breathtaking work with the new-world fearlessness of “Orange Is the New Black.”
Centered on a career-redefining performance by Jeffrey Tambor as a retired professor finally allowing himself to live his true life as a woman, the half-hour, 10-episode series is, quite simply, astonishing to watch.
Soloway (“Six Feet Under,” “The United States of Tara”) is working somewhat from personal experience — her father came out as transgender — but that feels less important than her big heart and gimlet eye. From the moment it opens, “Transparent,” being billed as a “dark comedy,” plants itself in familial and environmental reality.
In the leafy hills near Hollywood, by the “shores” of Silver Lake, dwell the various members of the Pfefferman family, the sort of Angelenos instantly recognizable to frequenters of eateries like Toast and Little Dom’s. Sarah (Amy Landecker) is the high-strung, super-organized mom in denial about her mortifyingly lifeless marriage; Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is still trying to rock the dreamy waif persona; and Josh (Jay Duplass) is a successful record producer who sleeps with his lovely young clients.
They are equal parts lovable and irritating in their utter narcissism, which is in turn overchronicled. “Transparent’s” biggest flaw is Soloway’s determination to give each of her children equal attention, which means everyone’s in some state of crisis or another and they all talk about it way too much.
But if it is a sin, it’s one of overenthusiasm. Whatever harm that brings is more than compensated for by the slow and quiet miracle of Tambor’s Mort, the Pfefferman patriarch who is transitioning to Maura, and who doesn’t quite know how to tell the kids.
Tambor is not the first to attempt such a role — John Lithgow played Roberta Muldoon in “The World According to Garp,” Tom Wilkinson transitioned from Roy to Ruth Applewood in “Normal,” Hilary Swank won an Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry,” among others — but Maura is the first transitioning transgender character to anchor a television series. And Tambor is a revelation.
The contrast between his quick, bright smile and those mournful eyes has never been put to better use. His ability to summon two characters — Mort burdened by frustration and shame, Maura buoyed by anxious joy — often with his posture alone offers audiences not just enlightenment on transgender issues but a master class in acting.
Which should not be confused with making it look easy. Transgender women and men face all sorts of internal and external conflicts, and Maura is of a generation that grew up before there was a real notion of an LGB community, much less the T. Her fears about her children’s reaction aside, her transition is not oversimplified, though she does have the benefit of living in L.A., where members of trans-community, most played by transgender women and men, offer support and counsel.
And as specific as “Transparent” is to Maura’s journey, it is also about the destructive nature of shameful secrecy in general. That all the Pfefferman kids are emotionally stalled out in one way or another is not divorced from their father’s plight. Presumably, her decision to be true to herself will offer her children a chance to do that as well.
Because the relief you see in Maura’s face and body when she allows herself to shed Mort, the lightness you hear in her voice ... forget transparent, it’s transcendent.
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Where: Amazon Prime
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)