When I reviewed the first few episodes of Amazon's new Transparent, I knew I liked the show. But having watched the full first season, I'm now convinced this is, hands down, one of the best shows of the year.
It's moving, funny, and lyrical, and by the end of its run, I was surprised by how thoroughly the series had gotten me both to care about the characters and shake my head in frustration when they did something stupid — just like I might for my own family. In the pilot, I feared I would only ever care about Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a trans woman making a gender transition late in life, but as the season wore on, I came to care about each and every character on screen, even the ones who seemed too broad to be believable earlier in the run. Maura's transition — the initial impetus for the show — became a gateway into stories about each and every character in her family.
One of the things that holds the show together perfectly is its direction, the way that different episodes' directors frame and position the story visually. I started thinking about this with a single shot in the eighth episode, which is one of my favorite bits of direction I've ever seen on TV. And that led me to this realization: Transparent is a show about alienation and its opposite, connection, sure, and that's obvious on a thematic level. But it's also obvious on a visual level.
Look at these shots from all 10 episodes to see what I mean.
Episode 1, "Pilot" (dir: Jill Soloway)
Soloway, the creator and showrunner of Transparent, also directed most of its episodes. She has a knack for very precise framing, which sets viewers up to visually understand the subtext of this family before the text of the show gets around to explaining it. Here, for instance, is family son Josh (Jay Duplass) watching the members of a band perform a cover of Jim Croce's "Operator." (He's sleeping with one of them, to boot.)
At this point in the show, all of the characters have connections to other characters, but they're very superficial ones — particularly true in the case of the perpetually adrift Josh. This show underlines that masterfully. He's perfectly positioned to be a part of the band — at the center even — but he's also not, stuck in the foreground while everybody else is on another plane, having all of the fun. He's there, but he's so far outside of the group he might as well not be.
Episode 2, "The Letting Go" (dir: Soloway)
And here, with the same character, we see the tentative beginnings of connection, as he shares a quiet moment with his tiny niece. (She's showing off the dream light she has in her room.) Soloway often lingers on these little moments, when two characters draw together, making sure we, too, notice them. This is the space all of them need to be in, even if they've spent years avoiding it.
Episode 3, "Rollin" (dir: Soloway)
Bathing half of a character's face in light and half in dark is a trick as old as motion pictures themselves, but Soloway uses the technique beautifully here to illustrate how conflicted oldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) feels about her life, in the wake of reopening a connection to an old girlfriend, despite her pre-existing marriage. It's also emblematic of where the character is in relation to her siblings and parents — there's light there, but she's not quite in it.
Episode 4, "Moppa" (dir: Nisha Ganatra)
Connection is everything on Transparent, but honesty is, too. Only when someone is honest with someone else can the two of them finally open up the lines of communication necessary for a healthy relationship.
The series' fourth episode opens with Maura coming out to her youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann). The two are able to finally, truly, really see each other, even if Ali's a little overzealous, grabbing Maura's face and squeezing her fingers too hard. Maura finally makes sense to her, Ali says, but the sequence also reflects Ali's state of mind: she's completely high. Ganatra gives the whole scene the woozy feeling Ali must have, which makes it feel slightly dreamlike and out of time.
Episode 5, "Wedge" (dir: Ganatra)
Here's Ed (Lawrence Pressman), the ultimate outsider in the Pfefferman clan. The second husband of Maura's ex-wife, Shelley, Ed is someone nobody really knows, and his ailing health as the series continues means this is the case throughout. (Indeed, he rarely shares a scene with any other actor, except in one crucial flashback.)
But this shot also underlines how Transparent uses its direction to make many of its best gags. This shot is just funny in and of itself, with the way Ed's caricature and cotton candy suggest the fun day he had while everyone was worried he had died or disappeared.
Episode 6, "The Wilderness" (dir: Soloway)
More connection, this time between Sarah and Maura, feet dangling beneath the surface of the pool's water.
A pronouncement by a friend of Maura's in the second episode that in five years, no one in Maura's family will speak to her anymore, hangs over the series like a prophecy of doom that cannot be avoided. And to be sure, Maura's children only become comfortable with her in fits and starts. But in tiny moments and gestures like this, the characters show the journey they're taking toward acceptance.
Episode 7, "Symbolic Exemplar" (dir: Soloway)
The Trans Got Talent talent show serves as the season's climactic center. Everything spirals downward toward it, and the three episodes that close out the season all exist in its wake. The last 10 minutes of this episode, starting with the talent show and continuing into the fallout when Maura's kids have to run out in the middle of her performance, are among the highlights of the season.
In this interview with Alan Sepinwall, Soloway talks about "privileging the other," about turning characters who would be the butt of the joke on other series into the people who are driving the story. And in this shot, we can see how she does this. The chintzy trappings of the talent show would be mock-worthy on a lot of shows, but Soloway frames this so that the characters attain perfect symmetry within the frame. There's a dignity to that, even if the performance is halting and the costumes are too much.
Episode 8, "Best New Girl" (dir: Soloway)
Here's the shot that knocked my socks off. To set it up, a bit of context.
The bulk of the action of "Best New Girl" takes place in the year 1994, when Maura (then living as Mort) heads to a crossdressing getaway with his friend Mark (who goes by Marcy when crossdressing and is played by Bradley Whitford). Through a series of events, 13-year-old Ali (played here by Emily Robinson) finds her way out to the beach, where she falls in with a much older guy. The tension rises between the two, with the audience fearing this man will take advantage of this young girl. Instead, he knows completely that she's far younger than she says she is, and sex remains a far-off frustration for her.
That's reflected in this shot, in which the older Ali intrudes upon this dream, watching her younger self and the older man play. The man, now age appropriate, approaches older Ali, and the two begin to kiss, a fantasy of what might have happened, if only... But the younger Ali reaches in from out of frame, tugging at his sleeve, pulling him back to the reality of what really happened. It's a brilliant articulation of how often our impulses as adults are ruled by things that happened to us as children, by lessons we perhaps over-learned. It is, in its own way, revelatory.
Episode 9, "Looking Up" (dir: Ganatra)
The final two episodes of the season take a turn toward the plottier, leaving behind the first eight episodes' gentle character development for a series of revelations that point the way toward the denouement and what a second season might look like. Still, the episodes are laced with lovely moments of connection, as here, where the hands of the very sick Ed are stroked gently, his first moment of real connection in the whole series, shortly before he dies.
Episode 10, "Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?" (dir: Soloway)
For a series so steeped in the world of Judaism, and in a Jewish family, this shot from the season finale — close to its end — actually makes me think of a quote from the New Testament. "Even the hairs on your head have all been counted," says Jesus to the disciples in both the books of Matthew and Luke, and this moment echoes with that famous phrase.
Ali, furious with her family after a fight with her father, storms off, and it seems like it will be the season's cliffhanger. Instead, she returns at the last possible moment and is asked to join the family for a prayer led by the son Josh just learned he had. (The son was put up for adoption and is a Christian.) The boy says the prayer will be more powerful if they're all connected, so Ali reaches out and grabs a single lock of Sarah's hair. And that is where we leave the Pfeffermans.
But it's the perfect place to leave them. The Pfeffermans may not know the number of all of the hairs on all of their family members' heads, but within the space of this family unit, they are all accounted for. This is a place to say hurtful things you might not really mean, sure, but also a place to be forgiven and to finally be honest about who you truly are. It's a rich, empathetic view of the human condition, and it's the perfect ending moment for one of the year's best shows.