“Transparent,” a new 10-episode dramedy that begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime, is a precise and comically downbeat little portrait of a family — the Pfeffermans — in which self-fulfillment overtook intimacy. The ennui is linked to entitlement; in this family, everyone was too busy grabbing for what he or she wanted.
Everyone, that is, except for the paterfamilias, Mort Pfefferman (“Arrested Development’s” Jeffrey Tambor), a retired college professor. Late in life and long after a divorce from Shelly (Judith Light), the mother of his three adult children, Mort has decided to end his private anguish and live openly as his truest self, taking his first steps to coming out as a woman named Maura.
Encouraged by her transgender support group in West Hollywood, Maura feels ready to tell her children. But when they arrive at her home — summoned to a dinner of takeout barbecue at the house in which they all grew up — Maura instead greets them once more as the father they knew. She’s afraid of telling them, but also she can’t get a word in edgewise. Instead, Mort tells them he’s going to sell the house, setting off an argument about who gets what.
“They’re so selfish,” Maura says, describing her children to her support group. “I don’t see how it is that I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”
That seems to be the show’s core message: Each of the Pfeffermans, Maura included, suffer the loneliness that comes with self-absorption. As TV characters, they will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent enough time attending low-budget indie films or watching premium cable shows that are all about vaguely unhappy people who, more often than not, live in sun-soaked Los Angeles, where all the vaguely depressed television writers and producers live, too. “Transparent” can at times feel like a skewed home movie intended for comfortably upper-middle class, nominally Jewish families from West L.A.; indeed, the show’s intro is a collage of images culled from old home movies and videotapes of weddings, bar mitzvahs and drag shows.
“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway (whose past work includes time at “Six Feet Under” and “The United States of Tara”) has sculpted Maura’s brood from the same narcissistic clay that brought audiences such memorably complicated characters as Amy Jellicoe from HBO’s short-lived “Enlightened” or the array of Catherine Keener characters in the films of Nicole Holofcener. If you fondly recognize any of those references, then it’s a good bet that “Transparent” just became your favorite new series of the fall season.
Maura’s oldest, Sarah (Amy Landecker), is a straight, stay-at-home mom with a full-time housekeeper and an obsession with the lesbian lover (Melora Hardin) from her college days, who has recently come back into Sarah’s life and upended her marriage. Maura’s son, Josh (Jay Duplass), is a successful record-label producer with a fairly typical assortment of hipster hang-ups, sexual and otherwise. The youngest child is Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who is unemployed and spends a fair amount of time on drugs and not following through on ideas for books she intends to write, living off occasional checks from her father.
What should really be a show about Maura’s journey instead presents her as the more stable, normal and approximately most noble character here — though Maura is not without flaws. Tambor gives a striking performance that perfectly captures both the forlorn and optimistic moments in Maura’s life, making great use of both his comic chops and his Droopy Dog face. Landecker, Duplass and Hoffmann are equally captivating as a trio of slightly despicable yet entirely relatable siblings, honing each character’s attendant hurts and shortcomings into a broader story of shared dysfunction.
Although each episode clocks in around 30 minutes, “Transparent” has an almost “Nurse Jackie”-like ability to make such good use of that half-hour that you almost feel as if you’ve watched an hourlong episode. The writing is subtle and economical yet full. It’s one of those rare shows that you could binge through in a matter of hours (Amazon is making all the episodes available at once), but it might work better if you space them out over several days. (Since the customer is always right in television consumption these days, that’s up to you. And speaking of customers, here’s your usual disclosure that Amazon and The Washington Post share an owner.)
Despite the fact that it’s tracking the stories of four separate Pfeffermans, “Transparent” still manages to find time to flash back 20-plus years, where viewers get some idea of how long Mort has desired to be Maura. “The West Wing’s” Bradley Whitford makes a cameo appearance (“Transparent” is loaded with actors you’ll fleetingly recognize) as Marcy, Maura’s first gender-questioning confidante.
“Transparent” is also particularly good at seamlessly imparting some “Trans 101” to viewers who will come at the story from different levels of enlightenment and preconceptions. Without the sort of sermonizing that came with other films and TV shows about transgender women and men, the scripts and storylines artfully acquaint a viewer with the basic manners of gender identity.
But rather than turn “Transparent” into a statement about the transgender experience, Soloway and her co-writers treat Maura’s journey mainly as one of many compelling story arcs, and they aren’t afraid to let it be as odd or awkward as it wants to be. In her tentative new life, perhaps only Maura stands the chance of finding a happiness that her children, in their blindness, may never know.
(10 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Instant Video.