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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Amazon releases game-changing drama 'Transparent'

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"My whole life, I've been dressing up as a man," says Mort, the main character of "Transparent."

Recently, television producers seem to have dug up a drama-ratings goldmine by exposing alternative narratives of post-modern American suburbia, stories that are missing from the "Leave it to Beaver" (1957 - 1963) genre of programming. They have given us a meth-slinging chemistry teacher in “Breaking Bad” (2008 - 2013), a domestic cougar-turned-pot-dealer in “Weeds” (2005 - 2012) and a pampered, white bread convict in “Orange is the New Black” (2013 - present). Each show has reaped critical acclaim and glued viewers of all ages to their laptop screens by striking a new chord -- that of sincere relatability interspersed with all the juicy, high-stakes drama and hush-hush double lives of its protagonists.

“Transparent” is Amazon’s contribution to this trend, both capitalizing on it and turning it on its head. A story about the web of intricate, fragile relationships woven around one family’s transgender father, “Transparent” sheds the over-the-top shock value of its predecessors in favor of a subtler, touchier and ultimately far more intimate experience. Amazon opted out of the traditional suspense model and released the entire first season for streaming at once late last month, allowing this seamless story to unravel like a perfectly paced feature film. The result? One of the most emotionally resonant series that television, albeit internet-based, has seen in a long, long time.

This new self-labeled dramedy centers on Mort Pfefferman -- played impeccably by “Arrested Development's” (2003 - 2006) Jeffrey Tambor -- who, upon entering post-divorce retirement, decides it’s finally time to transition into “Maura.” His three kids’ problems aren’t any simpler.  There’s Josh (Jay Duplass), whose misguided boyishness entangles him in a messy romance with a much younger client; Ali (Gaby Hoffman), who uses her body as a submissive vehicle for sex and drugs; and Sarah (Amy Landecker), a bored housewife who winds up messing around with college girlfriend Tammy, played by Melora Hardin, best known as Jan on “The Office” (2005 - 2013). Taken together, the Pfeffermans are a self-indulgent ticking time bomb, carrying an undercurrent of fragility that is both urgent and hyper-subtle.

Perhaps “Transparent” is able to pull this off because each of the characters is so absorbed in his or her own narcissistic chatter that the actual premise of the show -- Mort’s sex change -- is pushed to the background. It’s a sardonic dissection of modern family life and “mom” culture, faintly poking fun at the way modern kids take such things as fundraising committees, carpool lines and book ideas for Urban Outfitters just as seriously as they do their father's transition. As an audience, we hate these characters as much as we relate to them. We realize that Mort, in the end, is not the one with the overbearing issues -- he’s the only character with a calming, liberated presence on which everyone else can lean.

But the show’s dialogue is anything but shallow. In fact, each episode feels full because, unlike its fast-paced peers, it leaves in all the little stuff. It’s more concerned with habits, nervous ticks and everyday human weaknesses than grandiose plot. Each line is cherry-picked to be chewy and realistic yet still retain deeper meaning. So when Mort says things like, “my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man,” the viewer just gets it, and stays engrossed as the characters move on to washing dishes and supervising playdates.

This is what makes “Transparent” so refreshing. What could have easily been a topical and politically charged after-school special instead transcends the zeitgeist by weaving in broader questions of existence. It chooses not to focus on the elephant in the room but to bury it within an entire herd of timeless issues: fidelity, sexuality, strained relationships between parents, siblings and lovers. And this makes the show’s message all the more palpable.

In Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero” (1987), a group of rich college kids becomes so disillusioned with suburban Los Angeles that no amount of drama and vulgarity can phase them. As a result, they just get lost within themselves. “Transparent” is TV’s answer to their conviction that the American Dream has collapsed, but updated for 2014. We see changing modern-day conceptions of sex, family and the classic patriarch leave the characters searching for concrete meaning and finding none. Luckily, for the viewer, it’s plain and simple. “Transparent” is excellent, the most gripping new show of the season.

Summary "Transparent” is excellent, the most gripping new show of the season.
4 Stars