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Warm, funny, and melancholy, Transparent is one of the best new shows of the fall

Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor play daughter and her father, who is undergoing a gender transition, in Transparent, one of the best new shows of the fall.
Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor play daughter and her father, who is undergoing a gender transition, in Transparent, one of the best new shows of the fall.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The lovely, melancholic new Amazon series Transparent lands tomorrow morning. It's the site's biggest, best attempt yet to get you to notice that it has streaming content, and at just 10 episodes, each roughly a half-hour long, it will make for the perfect weekend binge.

And you'll want to binge this show, particularly if you enjoy series like Louie, Girls, or HBO's late, lamented Enlightened. Creator Jill Soloway has crafted a show filled with beautiful, tiny moments in a series that examines what it means to be happy and what it means to become the best possible version of yourself. It's one of the best new shows of the fall, and it creates the kind of tiny, lived-in world you'll want to get lost in.

But if that's not enough to convince you, here are five additional reasons to watch the show.

1) This is legitimately groundbreaking television

A lot of the discussion around Transparent has centered on the fact that series lead Jeffrey Tambor is playing a trans woman who makes a gender transition late in life. That this is so front-and-center in the reviews and other articles on the show may obscure just how groundbreaking this is, but it's true. There has never been a television show built around a trans person before, even though many (including Ryan Murphy) have tried.

Sure, there are trans characters on shows like Orange Is the New Black and The Fosters. But those characters are rarely at the center of the action. Though Transparent is an ensemble comedy, Tambor's character, Maura, is never far from the center of the action, and she proves the catalyst that causes her children to examine their own lives and how they've come up wanting.

It took decades for TV to treat trans people as something other than a joke. Even if Transparent were awful (and it's not), the fact that it treats Maura with such sensitivity and empathy would be worth praise.

2) Jeffrey Tambor

Tambor's career is a long, fruitful one, with at least two all-time great comedic performances in The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development. He's an unexpectedly funny performer, someone who never just makes a joke when he could be sneaking up on it unexpectedly instead. That sly, side-eyed way with a line reading serves him well as Maura.

There's often a tendency when discussing trans roles — which often go to non-trans actors who want to do something outwardly showy — to lament that an actual trans performer wasn't cast in the part. (Most recently, this popped up with Jared Leto's work in Dallas Buyers Club, which won him an Oscar but was mostly a shallow, surface-level performance.)

I doubt that will be the case with Tambor. The show has surrounded him with actual trans actors and actresses, in everything from bit parts to substantial supporting roles, and he's been very thoughtful and moving in interviews discussing how much the role has meant to him. But this is also the best he's ever been in a part. Just watch the way he holds himself as Maura and the way he holds himself as Mort — the man she lived as for most of her life. The two are subtly different, but noticeably so. It's a masterful example of restraint, and Tambor deserves at least an Emmy nomination for it, if not a win.


Judith Light and Gaby Hoffmann star in Transparent. (Amazon)

3)  The show takes its time

Netflix has tackled the question of how to create stories for binge-watching by making series that either goose the story with new jolts every couple of episodes or complex structures that make more sense when consumed all at once than across weeks. Transparent, at least, is taking the opposite approach. In its first four episodes — the only ones made available to critics — the show slows down and tries to be as thoughtful as possible.

Or, put another way, this is a show that's quite happy just to watch its characters think. There's a moment, for instance, late in the fourth episode, where Maura's youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), sits in the bath and contemplates her day. It's clear she's going through some sort of internal crisis, but it's not quite clear what that crisis is. Transparent relies on its strong writing, directing, and acting to carry you through these smaller moments, and that creates something more like real life, where it's not constant action, but it almost always feels like it is.

4) Jill Soloway

Soloway was the unheralded hero of one of the most unheralded great seasons of TV of the last decade — the second season of United States of Tara, which took a hard turn into uneasy domesticity and examined the underlying unhappiness of all of its characters. The show had been a solid but uneven comedy about a woman with dissociative identity disorder (often known as multiple personalities) in its first season, but Soloway and creator Diablo Cody turned it into a beautifully empathetic examination of the burdens of mental illness in that second season.

Since then, Soloway has bounced around Hollywood, with her wonderful film Afternoon Delight landing solid reviews. But Transparent should take her to the next level (and deserves to). Soloway's intimate storytelling style and directorial vision have always meshed well with television, and she digs into the story of Maura and her family in a sort of eternal close-up. Even when the characters are in wide or medium shots, you feel as if you're in the room with them, paying close attention to what they're feeling.


Jay Duplass plays just one of Maura's emotionally adrift children. (Amazon)

5) It's thematically rich

Though Transparent is very much centered on Maura, it's not just her story. All three of her children — Ali, Josh (Jay Duplass), and Sarah (Amy Landecker) — are going through their own crises of identity, crises that are pushed further toward a breaking point by learning their father is taking such a big step late in life.

The most important thing Transparent understands is that no one is entirely happy with their lives. No one is living exactly the life they thought they would. Everyone has made compromises in the name of appeasing others or struggling to fit in or simply giving in to fear. Granted, none of these is as dramatic or emotionally rich as Maura's struggles to finally become who she truly is, but they're on the same continuum.

We are, all of us, struggling toward some other version of ourselves, one who might be happier or more successful or just better. We are all trying to become the people we were born to be, but without a road map that points the way to that destination. That's true of everyone in Transparent, as well, and with every moment of every episode, it points the way through the darkness, toward something that will feel more like home.

Transparent debuts on Amazon Friday. All 10 episodes will be available immediately.

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