It just has to be said: Amazon's Transparent is absolutely transcendent. I've already binge-watched all 10 episodes of the first season… twice. There are dozens of things that I need to be watching in order to do my job, but I just can't stop analyzing and enjoying the eccentricities of the Pfefferman family.
And I'm not alone: The Golden Globes just handed Transparent two major awards, for Best Comedy Series and Best Actor in a Comedy Series, for star Jeffrey Tambor. And according to Amazon, Transparent is the most binge-watched TV series on Prime Instant Video, with nearly 80 percent of all viewers binging on two or more episodes of the series in the same day. This gives Transparent a higher binge-factor than any of the other Prime Instant Video binge leaders in the past. Plus, the show already got a second-season order, set to air later this year.
Transparent follows the transgender transition of Mort Pfefferman (Tambor), a 60-something family man, to Maura, his female self he's been quietly experimenting with for decades. As Maura decides to finally live her life the way she's always felt was intended, she struggles with coming out to her adult children, who all have serious relationship issues and sexual quirks of their own.
Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) each have complicated relationships with their father to begin with — having been divorced from their mother, Shelly (Judith Light), and something of a ladies' man for several years — but they also each have their own way of dealing with being introduced to their father as Maura and accepting her new way of life.
This unconventional family feels instantly relatable — you may not find yourself wanting to be a Pfefferman, necessarily, but you'll sure as hell want to be invited as a plus-one to their family functions. Created by Jill Soloway, the series is semi-autobiographical and it shows. Without experiencing a parent's coming out process first-hand, it'd be impossible to capture the heart, heartbreak, and potential humor of the situation as honestly and completely as Soloway does.
"Are you saying that you're gonna start dressing up like a lady all the time?" Sarah asks when she's surprised by her father in full Maura garb in Episode 2. Maura laughs and says, "No, honey — all my life, my whole life, I've been dressing up like a man." Before adding with 100 percent sincerity: "This is me."
The conversation about trans people is broached from a very inclusive, user-friendly place and educates smartly, without preaching, which is important when you're dealing with such a groundbreaking subject matter on TV. In Episode 4, when a distraught Ali tells Josh about their dad, she says: "Dad is a woman. Thinks he's a woman. Wants to be a woman? Something like that." Compared to Sarah's immediate acceptance of her father, Ali's confusion about the matter — mirrored through her own sexual bewilderment — is on the other end of the spectrum of understandable common responses.
When the kids tell their mother that their father dresses like a woman now, she laughs knowingly saying, "It's his thing! It's his little private kink." When they explain that it's more than a kink and much more than private, she's less horrified than just sincerely concerned, and that's another very special differentiation.
But it's Maura's new friend Divina who offers one melancholy fortune cookie full of trans wisdom: "This is a really big journey that we're on, and you've just started on it, so you've got to learn to let go of everything anybody thinks of you. A really, really good friend of mine said this to me when I first transitioned: She said, 'You know, in five years, you're going to look up and not one of your family members is still going to be there. Not one." When Divina confirmed to Maura that her friend was right, all Maura could say was, "That's so sad." And it is. You barely know the Pfeffermans when this exchange takes place, but the pangs of sadness just imagining them being estranged says it all.
Each performance is career defining, which means one thing when you're looking at the supporting actors — and it's true, across the board — but to say that about Tambor as Maura is a next-level compliment that he earns in every single scene. Even with a résumé speckled with several memorable and amazing roles, Tambor's acting career won't ever be discussed again without giving considerable props to this turn on Transparent. It doesn't feel like acting; it feels like he's living this as Maura is, and that is a remarkable thing to watch.
All of the casting on the show is spectacular, right down to the Pfefferman kids' younger selves, seen in flashbacks. Seriously, someone deserves an award for this:
And then there are the cameos, from some of comedy's best pinch-hitters, including Bradley Whitford, who plays Marcy, Mort's first cross-dressing cohort who christens her Maura after an unfortunate moment with the name Daphne Sparkles; Michaela Watkins as Connie, the wife of another cross-dressing man at Camp Camellia, who gets rather flirty with Maura; Rob Huebel as Sarah's ex Len, who has a pretty epic arc as a man struggling with losing his wife to another woman; Carrie Brownstein as Syd, Ali's best friend and the designated keeper of a cabinet of Pfefferman family secrets; Jason Mantzoukas as Dr. Steve, Josh's medical marijuana license-granting doctor who gives Sarah the same pass for grass; and Kathryn Hahn, who instantly grounds every insane scene she's in as Rabbi Raquel, the woman who finally gets through to Josh, emotionally.
The limbs on the Pfefferman family tree stretch to some bizarre places, as detailed in our infographic here — spoiler alert, if you haven't finished the first season:
Transparent is not like anything else on TV right now, and that's probably thanks in large part to the fact that it's not on traditional TV. As Amazon's first critical coup, Transparent sets the streaming network up to finally play with the big boys, in broadcast, cable, and other streaming networks.
No matter how much you've embraced streaming TV networks, you can't deny a show like this, a show that would feel just as at home in the lineup on HBO, Showtime, FX, or AMC, but that will thrive and flourish (and continue to get some well-deserved awards attention) because it isn't.
All 10 episodes of Transparent Season 1 are available now on Amazon.