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TV review: new Amazon show ‘Transparent’ best show of fall

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Photo via imdb.com

Photo via imdb.com

Wonderfully heart wrenching and disarmingly funny, “Transparent,” Amazon’s newest show, blows right past the rest of its fall TV competition.

The show begins just as the “calm” is shifting into the “storm” in the lives of the Pfeffermans, and it follows Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) as she comes out as transgendered to her three children, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Josh (Jay Duplass). Sarah’s marital infidelity with her college ex-girlfriend and Josh’s unplanned pregnancy set the stage initially for the show’s theme of grappling with sexuality and gender, but it’s their father’s transition from Mort to Maura that sets the tone for the rest of the show.

The creator, Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under), said that a major theme in the show is “Will you still love me if…” This idea is seen throughout the entire first season, both for the characters and for the audience, who are entreated to love these characters even as they do terrible things.

More than anything, this show is about family and they can heal but how it hurts more often than not. Maura’s journey is specifically hers, but the dynamic that exists between her and her kids is what makes this show’s themes uniquely universal.

Maura’s transition is just one part of an already dysfunctional and somewhat broken family system, and it is this that makes her story jump right over the danger of seeming like a gimmick. So while the show serves as another great step forward for the representation of trans-people in media, it doesn’t do that in disservice to telling a whole and diverse story about the shared history of the Pfeffermans. It might have been enough to just tell Maura’s story, but the show thrives from telling her story in conjunction with the sexual and gender confusion present in her children.

There’s nothing sermon-y about the story of Maura’s transition. Her worries about her kids’ mental state, about being alone and about whether her kids love her for who she is or for her money are only mediated by her transition, not necessarily driven by it. Her transition is told both from the perspective of her elation and relief over finally being herself, and the heartbreaking narrow-mindedness she experiences from others. Her story is the throughline for the rest of the Pfefferman’s interesting and disastrous lives, creating an amazingly complex and compelling depiction of the entire family.

It’s a credit to the show that while it can be depressing or frustrating, it never becomes a hopeless, bleak portrayal of this family. The high-octane melodrama of network shows, like “Scandal,” has its place, but there is something undeniably refreshing about watching characters who feel like real people rather than TV characters.

And what the show doesn’t do is take sides. While Maura deals with ignorance of the people around her including her family members, it is also clear that she wasn’t always an optimal parent. While we hear her lament at a support group about how selfish her children are, we are reminded that she, as their parent, played a part in that. The show doesn’t argue that Maura’s sub-par parenting warrants the selfishness and unkindness she receives from her kids, but it also doesn’t argue that Maura being marginalized makes her this pure, fully enlightened being who knows that using the word “faggot” to yell at your noisy neighbors (as she does after coming home from a long day) isn’t okay. Instead, the show makes her into a fully realized character defined by not just by her transition, but by all of her actions, experiences and relationships.

Most importantly, “Transparent” does this with all of the characters, depicting their lives, struggles and terrible decisions with unmitigating detail and honesty, but without judgment or defense. These characters, in all their uncertainties and self-assurances, simply are who they are, making the show feel like more of a biography than cultivated fiction.

Reflecting the progressive medium the show premieres on (its full online-only season released all at once; Amazon’s answer to Netflix), “Transparent’s” eagerness to tell stories about people and topics that many shows shy away from make this show something to really get excited about.

If stories and media do anything, they expand our world and help us understand people and ideas that we would otherwise never encounter. We may not know a trans-person or someone struggling with their gender or sexuality, but we can “know” the Pfeffermans. In creating such a multifaceted and honest depiction of not just one person in gender transition, but of the transitional life of an entire family, “Transparent” sets itself apart from the rest of TV. It is densely plotted, beautifully shot and it is truly the best new show on television.

The pilot episode of “Transparent” is free for anyone to watch on Amazon.com. All 10 episodes of “Transparent’s” first season can be seen by Amazon Prime members.   

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