Steal This: Transparent

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, and Alexandra Billings as Davina, in Amazon's Transparent.

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, and Alexandra Billings as Davina, in Amazon’s Transparent.

Show: Transparent

Tenure: One season thus far, on Amazon streaming video; season two is in production.

Prime property:

  • It’s a beautiful, compelling premise, centering on a seventy-year old transgender woman, Maura, who decides, after a lifetime of living as a man, to make the transition. This is one of those stories that writes itself; the interactions with her three children and her ex-wife are rich, as well as the flashbacks that tell us how these people got to this point.
  • No one in the main cast is under thirty. Let me repeat that: NO ONE IN THE MAIN CAST IS UNDER THIRTY. Most of the cast is over forty. Somehow, the cameras didn’t break or turn into dust! Yes, you can tell an engaging, edge-of-your-seat story with mature people, a fact that keeps being forgotten in the mad rush for ad demographics and page hits.
  • This is the closest match to the scale and the production values that I think a new serial, or a reboot of one, might have. Transparent used a lot of existing houses and apartments for sets in a realistic way. Yes, there are scenes outside. But it all looks great, and fits into the story. This show didn’t have a huge budget, but clearly it had a workable set design plan, and that’s the kind of inventiveness shows will need at this budget level going forward.
  • One of my favorite performers, Alexandra Billings, plays the currently-entirely-too-small role of Davina.
  • There are revelations involved – indeed, Maura’s transition is a surprise to her children – but it feels more authentic here.

Potholes to avoid:

  • I loved this story and these people, but good grief, the Pfeffermans, especially the kids, are a self-absorbed bunch. Over the course of the season you understand the context in which all of it is happening, and you realize that Maura is no heroine, and is as self-absorbed as they are. But on an individual episode basis, it can be frustrating to watch, particularly the characters of Josh and Ali. Most of the negative comments I’ve heard, where people said they stopped watching after a few episodes, were about this. (Hang in there; it’s worth it.)
  • Some of the peripheral relationships really fell flat. I’m not sure if I’m just too accustomed to seeing Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia, but every time she appeared on Transparent, it took me out of the moment, and I really didn’t buy any of her relationships with anyone.
  • I think this is too much content to really enjoy or completely absorb in a “binge-watching” scenario. This should be an episode at a time, but it’s unlikely that Amazon will change anything next season.

Something about this show really reminded me a bit of the better aspects of daytime. At some point, Maura Pfefferman brought to my mind none other than Nola Reardon. Why? The journey, the changes that the characters make. They are very different people, these two characters, but I sensed some similarities in the ways that they profoundly change in front of our eyes. They undergo a metamorphosis, but at the same time, they’re still essentially the same person at their core. It’s just that finally, another part of their being – one that was hidden for years – is out in the sunlight.

Like Mad Men, Transparent does well with some of the smaller conversations showing us who the characters are. We really see how lost Maura’s children are, and wonder if the ways that Maura hid her true self had an impact on their lives.

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