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'Transparent' gives Amazon a top-notch series

Actor Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in

Actor Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in "Transparent," an Amazon original series in 2014. Credit: Amazon Studios / Beth Dubber

THE SHOW. “Transparent”

WHEN | WHERE. Now streaming to subscribers of Amazon Prime Instant Video

WHAT IT'S ABOUT. The Pfeffermans are a middle-class Jewish family -- the children are all adults -- who live around Los Angeles. The father, Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), has a lifelong secret: He is transgender, and has finally decided to tell his family. They are Sarah (Amy Landecker), a mother of two; Josh (Jay Duplass), a music producer; and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), the youngest. His ex-wife is Shelly (Judith Light). And by the way, Mort is no longer Mort, but Maura. The pilot has been around awhile, but on Friday, Sept. 26, Amazon released the final nine. My appraisal -- which follows -- is based on six episodes. 

MY SAY. “Transparent” is not for everyone -- the sex and language are unusually graphic and for some sensibilities, shocking. So consider this your caveat emptor. But get past that to the important stuff -- craftsmanship, execution, intelligence -- and this 10-parter is clearly special. The best new show of the fall, as some critics have already declared? Sure. Why not? Except that says next to nothing. But this indisputably is Amazon Prime's “Orange Is the New Black.” That -- believe me -- is praise enough.

“Transparent” is about people who are in pieces -- none of them fully assembled. They are restlessly attempting to assemble those pieces but invariably fall short.

“Transparent” doesn't need to look far for a reason why: Maura/Mort never came to terms with who he was. In a key sense, the errors of the father are passed on to the children, because he never taught them how to be themselves, or accept themselves for who they were and are -- he was too busy hiding from himself. The family members love each other, but their self-loathing is palpable.

That's the haunting background melody throughout, but the tone is leavened by some effortlessly funny writing and outstanding performances.

Creator Jill Soloway, who is largely nonjudgmental about her deeply fraught characters, has captured these lives so fully that they start to almost take form off-screen, too. They seem more real than real at moments -- the clearest indication Soloway has poured much of her life into them as well.

The same sort of love-hate and disdain-adoration for a very specific geographic slice of L.A. -- maybe Toluca Lake or Silver Lake -- that “Girls” has for Brooklyn also crowds that screen. The show luxuriates in the excesses of parts of the culture -- drugs, booze, sex in particular -- but those excesses also reflect the tumultuous inner lives of these characters.

For better or worse, they're part of this contained little world from which there is no escape for any of them. Even with all the sunshine, “Transparent” feels claustrophobic at times. That doesn't distract from this show's quality: Claustrophobia happens to work particularly well here.

BOTTOM LINE. An Amazon Prime triumph.


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