Transparent, the new original series from Amazon Studios, is groundbreaking television in every sense of the word. The show follows the Pfefferman family of Los Angeles, anchored by a remarkable performance by Jeffrey Tambor as Maura.
When we first meet Maura, she's Mort, struggling with how to tell her children (played by Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass) that she's going to start living openly as a woman. Though the pilot episode (which has been available on Amazon Prime for months) treats Maura's coming-out as a twist, it's impossible to discuss the heart of the show without revealing this mild spoiler. The show is officially labeled a half-hour comedy, but it more closely aligns tonally with "dramedies" like Netflix'sOrange Is the New Black. Heartbreaking scenes are evenly matched with laugh-out-loud moments.
For Tambor, the role of Maura was an opportunity as daunting as it was enticing. "I felt a great responsibility, because I'm cisgender male and I'm playing this role," the Arrested Development star tells TVGuide.com, about identifying with the gender to which he was born. "And I knew that. Very often I felt like someone was tapping me on the shoulder saying, 'Get this right.' But I love that. This is an area that, there needs to be love and light shed on it. And whatever part I can play as an ally to the movement and to the revolution, I'm honored."
Creator Jill Soloway, whose father ("parent," she gently corrects) came out as a trans woman a few years ago and whose sister is also a writer on the show, says she used her own experience to inform and inspire the concept of Transparent, but the characters and the story itself are fictionalized.
As Maura's story line plays out, the Pfefferman children (they're grown, but this is undoubtedly the correct term for them) are each harboring their own skeletons in the closet and dealing with their own individual identity crises. Sarah (Landecker), who's stuck in a stale marriage to Len (Rob Huebel), reconnects with her college flame Tammy (The Office's Melora Hardin); Ali (Hoffman) finds herself in a stagnant funk and hires a domineering — in every sense of the word — personal trainer to pull her out of it; and Josh (Duplass) flits from girlfriend to girlfriend while keeping his longest-lasting and incredibly disturbing relationship a secret from his family and friends. As their mother and Maura's ex-wife, Shelly, Judith Light is completely unrecognizable, and also brilliant.
"The show is speaking to the ultimate goal of family," Hoffmann tells TVGuide.com. "[The purpose of] parenthood, siblings, any relationship, really, I think is to create a space in which you feel safe, loved, held, but also given the space to figure out who you are. ... And I think the [Pfefferman] family has failed one another, all of them — parents to children, children to parents — on many levels in that respect. So there is a great amount of fear from everybody's perspective. Will I still be loved? Is it a safe place to expose or explore myself? We're finding the family at the beginning of a change in dynamic and behavior through which we will begin to be able to do that for one another."
Adds Tambor: "It is human nature for people to go, 'Don't change. Don't change. Be what I think you are. Will you still love me if you find out who I am?' Which is what our show is about. Am I safe? My kids sometimes say, 'Daddy, am I safe?' if something happens. I think that's a human question. That's why this show is not only about Maura. ... All five of our characters have life secrets that they're holding. And that is why anybody who's ever gone to Thanksgiving with the whole family can relate to the Pfefferman family. These are human beings."
Following in the footsteps of Netflix's binge model, Amazon will make all 11 episodes of Transparent available to Amazon Prime users on Friday, Sept. 26. It's a bold move on Amazon's part to release Transparent the same week that viewers are already inundated with fall premieres on broadcast networks, but also a smart one. Not only does it indicate that the online retailer is ready to be a major player in the online streaming arena, the larger point is that, frankly, Transparent is better than any of the new shows the networks are rolling out — by a long shot. (Imagine hearing a one-liner like "your male privilege is leaking all over the place" on a network sitcom — or even HBO.) Personally, I haven't felt so charmed by and addicted to a show since watching the first season of Orange Is the New Black.
When Soloway was first shopping the show around, she made the rounds to "all the usual suspects," including Netflix, HBO, Showtime and FX, she tells TVGuide.com.
"FX has had a show about a trans dad [in development] for a long time that they had to sort of put first," she explains. "I think Netflix felt like they had their trans show with Orange Is the New Black. HBO and Showtime were both great and really interested, but both of them I think would have wanted to do some development. And it also was the possibility, with places like that, that you can develop it for a few years but it might not ever make it to the air."
Amazon, by contrast, was on board right away and enthusiastic about making sure the show didn't get stuck in "development hell," as Soloway puts it. "It's a very exciting way to create," Soloway says. "As much as Joe [Lewis, head of comedy at Amazon Studios] comes and visits, there is never the team of people standing behind the monitors with their arms folded going, 'You'd better be getting us our product, because we're selling it and so it has to be right."
"[We're] willing to be riskier and take more chances," Lewis says. "You're showing shows in a different way. It's not a far leap to say, let's tell shows in a different way too."
For Soloway, who was a writer and co-executive producer on Six Feet Under, part of adapting to that new model was learning tell stories in a binge-friendly way she describes as more "novelistic." In the original script for the Transparent pilot, Maura comes out to all of her children within the first 10 minutes. In the final version — spoiler alert — she's unable come out to any of them until the episode's final seconds (and accidentally, at that).
"We really take seriously this question, What is the difference between asking somebody to come back in a week and asking somebody to keep going tonight?" Soloway notes. "Besides the fact that the show is at the beginning of a movement when it comes to the trans revolution, delivering 10 episodes as a five-hour movie, delivering something that people can consume over and over again or in bits of three, is a new storytelling form."
Due in part to shows like Orange Is the New Black, Soloway says, the entertainment landscape is ripe for a show like Transparent — and not just because of the binge-watching factor.
"It feels like an amazing time," she says. "It really feels like women are wanting shows that appeal to them, feminism has a voice finally, and gender is in the zeitgeist in a way that I've never seen before. ... It's quite perfect timing."
All 10 episodes of Transparent are available on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, Sept. 26. Check out a trailer for the show here: