Why Transparent Is the Best Show on TV

At the Golden Globes, watching standard network sitcoms winning the Best Comedy Series award is a pretty common thing. Some actually good shows that get the rare nomination are usually ignored for what passes for the lowest common denominator’s “smart” series of the moment. For every Louie nomination triumph, there will be a Modern Family or Glee to actually take home the award and remind us that quality and originality may not always get rewarded.

But in the most recent ceremony, the Best Comedy Series Golden Globe didn’t go to a network show. It didn’t even go to a cable show. It was a smaller Amazon program, fresh into the original content business, that swooped in and took the critical cake for the night.

Transparent is a show about the Pfefferman family, a wealthy Los Angeles-based household, whose patriarch — and otherwise standard male in his late 60s — Mort (masterfully played by the always awesome Jeffrey Tambor) comes out to his children — and the world — as transgender. After decades of not being able to reveal her true self, she finally starts living life as Maura.

The Pfefferman kids are all in their 30s, but with all the self-centeredness of teenagers half their age. Sarah (Amy Landecker), the eldest daughter, is going along with an unhappy marriage and re-questioning her independence and sexuality as she runs into her old college girlfriend and her priorities shift radically. Josh (Jay Duplass), the middle child, has a comfy music business job and is constantly seeking the approval of the much younger girls he claims to love every time he feels lonely. Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), the youngest of the Pfeffermans, is a smart and enthusiastic free spirit that skates through life waiting for something to happen while she spends her dad’s money on ever-changing plans. Judith Light plays Shelly Pfefferman, Mort/Maura’s ex-wife and the kids’ mother, and delivers perhaps her best role to date as the overbearing Jewish mom.

Jill Soloway, who served as a writer/producer on Six Feet Under, and more recently made the excellent indie film Afternoon Delight, created Transparent and wrote and directed most of the episodes.

Soloway’s own parent came out as transgender a few years ago, an event that obviously shaped her life in ways she didn’t expect. The coolest thing about it, though? It gave her the idea to develop a damn good television show.

Some of the criticism she’s received has been aimed at Soloway not being transgender herself, and not having the first person perspective to do a show about it. The thing is she does know what it feels like to be the child of a trans person, which is exactly the point of the show. Transparent is not really about a transgender parent, but about the relationships that this person has with each member of the family.

Why Transparent Is the Best Show on TV

The Pfefferman example is particularly great for this because, as a fairly liberal family, none of the kids are inherently opposed to their dad revealing such a private and life-changing element. They can all — on varying degrees and with a changing nature — intellectually not only comprehend but also accept that their parent has gone through a very tough life of secrecy, and they all support it in their own logical and seemingly open-minded way. Kind of.

Because that is where the beauty of Transparent lies, in the subtlety and unpredictability of the characters’ thought process, and how sneaky certain feelings can be when all you’ve done is diffuse them with either the light-heartedness of a common sense of humor, or with the ugly righteousness of denial and fear. The fact that they can try to understand the reasons behind their parent’s truth, and still have the ability to be somewhat rational and empathetic doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pretty weird situation to be in! A lot of their different identities as men, women, daughters, sons, past, present and future are slowly challenged when the information starts simmering, and it becomes real. Nobody knows exactly how to manage those feelings; nobody is prepared for it; there’s no blueprint, and they can only learn and react as they go along.

Many times, when watching TV, we tend to focus on the big events. Anything that makes us gasp in surprise, and deliver us enough tension to power-rant about it on social media and feed our water cooler conversations with crazy and exciting theories. Cliffhangers, mysteries, betrayal, death, explosions, revenge and salvation are constantly jammed down our throats, because it’s what Hollywood has taught us, that we need high stakes thrills to feel entertained by what we’re watching.

But the pace of Transparent is unlike anything else on TV. The show’s pulse is slow and steady, and doesn’t give two shits about anybody’s standard for what a “comedy” or a “drama” should be. Technically speaking, this should fit a bit more into the drama category, but the family’s dynamics allow many funny moments that — in classic secular Jewish tradition — let everyone breathe through the difficult times and create a familiarity and freshness that makes you feel right at home.

Transparent is an extremely Jewish show. Not so much in religious matters, but in the way it shows the life of a culturally Jewish family better than a lot of the cartoony representations we often see in movies or TV. In fact, that’s probably what still makes Transparent a comedy. Without that urgent sense of needing to laugh all the pain, confusion and loneliness off, this would be a very gloomy program. But you know what? So would any high quality comedic work ever made, because there’s no such thing as a funny and touching piece of art without having earnestness and self-awareness in its purest form.

Tambor may have the role of a lifetime, which is quite an achievement, considering he’s had pivotal parts on two of the greatest shows in American television history: Arrested Development and The Larry Sanders Show, both critically acclaimed, yet somehow still a bit underrated.

The journey that Maura goes through is brand new. Mort had a life experience, but Maura is still very green at acting like herself. Tambor’s preparation was impeccable, and he’s mentioned several times that the connection he felt to the character of Maura helped him learn things about himself that he never knew existed. The helplessness, sweetness and uncertainty that Tambor manages to convey can easily resonate with anyone with a half-functioning heart.

Maura’s struggle — coming out to her kids and adapting to the life she always wanted to live, yet terrified of something that seemed impossible for so long — is the catalyst that triggers an emotional avalanche in the family, but it’s the process of each character’s discovery, and the interactions between them that feel absolutely riveting. The whole cast is fucking excellent.

You do get the feeling that each character is trying to do what’s best for him/herself, but instead of becoming chaotic, they’re actually giving themselves a lot more to work with. Most of them enjoy being the center of attention, yet they all seem shocked when someone else appears to be wanting to be that center of attention, which makes the situation not only human, but also paints a picture that many families can definitely identify with.

There’s a palpable real sibling bond that you rarely get on other family-focused shows. In spite of all the Pfefferman children being deeply flawed — and let’s face it, kind of unlikable — characters, it’s almost impossible not to empathize with all of them. In a way, you end up feeling like part of the family.

Soloway has said that Tambor always reminded her of her own transgender parent and he was her first choice for the part of Mort/Maura. They both seem to have found a type of savior in each other, not to mention a special bond with the transgender community that goes a lot further than where the basic research for a role will get you.

In a heartfelt speech after also receiving the very deserved and long overdue Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy Series — and after a particularly long walk to the stage that Conan later poked fun at — Tambor called national attention to the community that’s opened new doors of understanding, not only for the veteran actor, but for everyone involved.

In the end, though, it’s a lot deeper than the trans factor. It might be an interesting theme and an unexplored situation on television, but what makes this program so good are its strong characters, their even stronger relationships with each other, the superb acting, and the uniqueness of its writing and storytelling. If Tambor’s character had a different — though maybe similarly endearing — inner-struggle, Transparent would have still been what it is: the best TV show of 2014.

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