The title of Jill Soloway’s Transparent, another of Amazon’s second slate of pilots, works on a few levels. The first is quite obvious (hint: it’s a word) and the second works as a play on the tagline of the show, but the third is perhaps most important. On the outset, Transparent looks to be another rote familial/gladiatorial showdown of dysfunctional brothers, sisters, and parents with more of Soloway’s trademark, tilted perspective, but it has a lot more once you see past the surface.
Transparent is a comedy that features a small family of a perpetually broke sister trying to figure out how she can write hipster novelty books; an overworked stay-at-home mom trying to reconcile a lifeless marriage with the reappearance of her old college (and lesbian) lover; a brother who floats between women like a tumbleweed between saloons; and a father who can’t find it within him to tell his children he’s in the midst of transitioning to a woman.
While none of these situations are likely to directly apply to your life (or maybe they do; I don’t know your life), the core of each of these situations are going to land somewhere in your cold, dead heart and rattle it. The standout component to the show is just how identifiable these people are in their collective foundation of struggles, and not in their actual situations.
Ali, the younger sister played by Gabby Hoffman, has a tough time finding her way mostly because she can’t seem to find where she sees herself. Unhappy with her body, unhappy with her family, and unhappy being broke, she wants change but can’t produce a catalyst. She speaks to our complacency in life, a complacency brought about through idleness.
Amy Landecker as Sarah, the older sister, struggles with maintaining her house of grade school children and any semblance of romance with her husband. Her ex lesbian, married lover from college, however, has recently moved back and happens to run into her as they drop of their kids at the same school, and something is kindled once more. How often romance acts like a sickness, grabbing a hold of the most lively host and throttles it with madness.
Each of these characters is broken in such a particular way but seemingly excised directly from some facet of your life. It is a strength of the show, but certainly not the only one. These relatable units of life are delivered by quality actors, though the highlight is most clearly Jeffrey Tambor as the father.
He’s nothing like his other most notable patriarchal role in Arrested Development. There’s a melancholy resolution here. He puts himself almost entirely in a dark place. His children are deftly selfish, reducing themselves to boisterous animals when together at a family dinner. His life is split in twain, one he’s trying to shed and another he’s trying to fit into like a snake into another skin. It’s a heartbreaking yet emboldening portrayal.
The crack in the solid wall of Transparent, however, is that so much of this required a steady and precise hand to guide it and maintain this level of insight and direction that it could so easily fall apart. While I don’t think Transparent is the strongest pilot, I do believe it is the show with the most potential. I also believe it has the most potential to crash and burn if it gets picked up.
But this is just what Amazon needs to get its studio component running against Netflix’s award-winning original programming. It needs to put all its chips behind a single hand, and Transparent just might be the one to win it all. It could land Amazon in the House of Cards and Orange is the New Black territory, but it has to follow through and keep up with its promising setup. Easier said than done, though.
Final Score: 8 out of 10