Mort Pfefferman's entire life has been an identity crisis. A divorced dad of three grown, though not always grown-up, children, melancholy Mort is truly at ease only when in the heretofore secret guise of his feminine alter ego, Maura. In a flashback from 20 years earlier, Maura laments, "No one's ever seen me except me" — a situation that's about to change as the funky younger Pfeffermans slowly get to know the truth about their trans parent in Amazon's Transparent (get it?), creator Jill Soloway's deeply felt, intensely human comedy. This series (available on Amazon Instant Prime starting Friday) should do for Amazon, reputation-wise, what House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black achieved for Netflix. It's at least their equal, with the feel and tone of an Oscar-worthy independent film.
And gifted character actor Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show) makes the most of this fascinating role-of-a-lifetime, investing Maura with an emotionally fragile grace on a foundation of resilient grit, avoiding any trace of camp, as she nervously comes out to the family and emerges into a not-always-welcoming outside world.
Transparent is just as invested in Maura's unsettled offspring — smartly, though rarely flatteringly, played by Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffman — as the show sensitively and sardonically maps their neurotic, often erotic paths to self-discovery (and, they hope, fulfillment). This at times seems like a less antic Tales of the City, with the urban sprawl of L.A. as a backdrop to their messy lives, which includes the wonderful Judith Light as Mort/Maura's ex. Amazon is releasing the entire 10-episode first season at once, Netflix-style, perfect for obsessive bingeing. Transparent's transcendent empathy and wry, raw realism make most of this fall season's new batch of network sitcoms seem even emptier than usual.
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TOON TIME: Just a few weeks ago, The Simpsons reasserted its pop-cultural staying power by lifting FXX's ratings in a pre-Labor Day mega-marathon of its first quarter-century worth of episodes. Now entering its 26th season on Fox, TV's most enduring animated series makes a big noise Sunday with two significant events. First, in its regular time period (8/7c), the show lays one of Springfield's citizens to eternal rest. (Bart's chalkboard gag reads, "Spoiler Alert: Unfortunately, my dad doesn't die.") No hints here in what is otherwise a very Krusty-centric episode, as the bitter clown suffers a televised roast — with Jeff Ross and Sarah Silverman guest-voicing savage insults —resulting in a career crisis of confidence, which prompts anchor-buffoon Kent Brockman to declare, "Today's the day the pity laughter died." No pity laughter where The Simpsons is concerned. And tune in early, because the couch-gag opener (by Don Hertzfeldt) is about as freaky as it gets.
An hour later (9/8c), in an hour-long episode not available for preview, Family Guy presents its long-awaited crossover episode, with the Griffins visiting Springfield for a meeting of the mutant families. I'm especially keen to see psycho Baby Stewie bond with Bart (the already-notorious prank-call joke aside). But where does that leave Brian? Hanging with Santa's Little Helper?
ATTEND THE TALE: Of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical, presented by PBS's Live From Lincoln Center (Friday, 9/8c, check tvguide.com listings) in a thrilling concert staging as the premiere attraction of its 40th season. You can't ask for a more robust orchestral interpretation than having the New York Philharmonic accompany the stellar cast — which includes Welsh opera great Bryn Terfel as a fearsome, glowering Sweeney, the marvelous Emma Thompson mugging merrily as the devoted Mrs. Lovett, and the multiple-Tony-winning Audra McDonald haunting the fringes as the demented Beggar Woman. And you won't want to miss the opening moments of the production, directed by Lonny Price, as Avery Fisher Hall's concert hall undergoes a startling transformation worthy of London's most notorious singing butcher.
SO LONG, FAREWELL: For now, anyway, as Starz wraps the first half of a triumphantly swoony first season of the romantic historical fantasy Outlander (Saturday, 9/8c) — with a second batch of eight episodes not arriving until April 4. The riveting midseason cliffhanger, titled "Both Sides Now," toggles between 1945, where Frank's (Tobias Menzies) desperate search for missing wife Claire (Caitriona Balfe) leads him to those magical stones of Craigh Na Dun; and 1743, where time-tripping Claire's torrid honeymoon with no-longer-virginal Jamie (Sam Heughan) threatens to be cut short by Redcoats, including Frank's doppelganger ancestor, Black Jack Randall. Making viewers wait months for the next episode is likely to send fans back to the books. Or maybe they'll just rewatch last week's steamy "Wedding" episode over and over.
An even more eventful season finale unfolds on Showtime's Ray Donovan (Sunday, 9/8c), with almost too much trauma, turmoil and betrayal brewing in the climactic hour of its second season, but I was glued to every shocking twist, several of them expectedly bloody. As usual, Ray (Liev Schreiber, internalizing so much angst) has his hands full, trying to protect his daughter from the powerful thug who murdered her boyfriend, to bail out a brother caught in their crooked father's latest bungled scheme, and maybe even to preserve his on-the-rocks marriage (which, frankly, I'm not sure is worth the effort at this point). The Masters of Sex finale, not available for preview, follows at 10/9c, and thankfully, both will return next year. What a Sunday combo that has been.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: A new twist, "The Save," is introduced on CBS's The Amazing Race this season, but the bigger news involves the show's move to Fridays (8/7c). ... The milestone 40th season of NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30) kicks off with Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt as guest host, hot off his big-screen success in Guardians of the Galaxy, with Ariana Grande as musical guest. In other news, Darrell Hammond takes over from the legendary late Don Pardo as announcer, and Michael Che joins the anchor desk alongside Colin Jost. ... How thrilling and surprising was the season opener of CBS's The Good Wife, with Cary (Matt Czuchry) jailed because of the firm's association with druglord Lemond Bishop, complicating Diane's move from her own suspicious workplace. More fallout ensues this week (Sunday, 9/8c), and I'll be there. ... International intrigue besets CBS's Madam Secretary in its topical second episode (Sunday, 8/7c), involving a Benghazi-like embassy attack in Yemen, which forces Elizabeth (Téa Leoni) to work with a mercenary private-security company she once likened to Satan. The moral quandary plays better than the self-righteous payoff, but the episode's bigger problem is the sudden introduction of Elizabeth's college-age daughter, who feels less like a character than a network note. ... Synergy alert: ABC's Once Upon a Time (Sunday, 8/7c) welcomes Frozen's Elsa (Georgina Haig) to Storybrooke, a sign that Disney isn't about to let go of the hit movie franchise's crossover potential just yet. (If, like me, you've fallen behind on the series, a recap will air at 7/6c.) ... Last season's surprise midseason hit Resurrection returns on ABC (Sunday, 9/8c), with the Langstons nervously welcoming yet another "returned" member of the family: Game of Thrones' Michelle Fairley as long-dead matriarch Margaret, little Jacob's grandma, who looks considerably younger than her own son Henry (Kurtwood Smith). (So much for Fairley being resurrected anytime soon on Thrones). This mystical drama is like the flip side of HBO's summer curiosity The Leftovers — it's more like "The Reheated" — and I only wish its characters were as fully realized, because it's not nearly so depressing.