Jean Valjean sings it as he confronts his complex past. Simba wonders it as he stares at his reflection in the water. Oh-so-many protagonists of films and television series have meditated on the question: “Who am I?” In terms of character development and plot movement, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
“Transparent”, a new dramedy from Amazon, stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman, the transgender patriarch of an upper-middle-class Jewish family who is in the midst of her male-to-female transition. Maura is eager to shed her identity as Mort, a middle-class Jewish man, and start living as the person she always knew she was. A complicating factor: Maura’s three adult children are just that. Self-involved and emotionally stunted, they act more like kids than the adults they’ve supposedly become. Sarah (Amy Landecker), the oldest, is a wife and mother of two who finds herself falling back in love with an old girlfriend (Melora Hardin) and questioning her sexuality. Josh (Jay Duplass) is a successful music producer, as well as a prolific womanizer with commitment issues galore. And then there’s Allie (Gaby Hoffman), the quintessential Baby of the Family who bounces aimlessly between graduate programs and unemployment. As Maura’s ex-wife Shelly, Judith Light imbues the Jewish mother stereotype with a sharp edge of humor and resolve. The family’s reactions to Maura’s ongoing transition — variously maddening, moving and complicated — form the beating heart of the show.
“Transparent” feels singularly modern, and with good reason: It couldn’t have existed even a few years ago. For one thing, online streaming services (like Netflix and Amazon Prime) hadn’t yet taken over the television world. For another, American popular culture almost entirely avoided representing the T in LGBT. Tambor’s Maura is perhaps the single most nuanced and accurate portrayal of transgender life ever to grace the silver (MacBook) screen.
The show is also proof that the long-standing divide between film and television, between high art and low-brow entertainment, has all but disappeared. “Transparent” is full of gorgeous shots and inventive cinematography. Flashbacks follow older plotlines (Mort’s first time wearing women’s clothing, Allie’s bat mitzvah weekend) that inform present-day ones. Scenes are warmly lit; the dialogue is at turns witty and light, spare and devastating.
The worst thing about “Transparent” is that you have to be an Amazon Prime subscriber to watch it. While that’s a pretty significant barrier to entry for most college students, it’s not an insurmountable one. If you can’t spend $99/year to watch one show (and you probably shouldn’t), ask your mom’s cousin’s neighbor if you can borrow her Amazon account for a few hours.
At its core, “Transparent” is about identity in all its mystifying and splintered forms, whether it’s thirty-somethings grasping for inner peace or a sixty-something preparing to show the world who she really is. While the search for personal identity is a pretty common question of American television shows and the millennials who watch them, “Transparent” isn’t just concerned with its characters as individuals. It focuses on the Pfefferman family identity as a whole — not just “Who am I?” but “Who are we?” The show successfully deals with that fundamental familial messiness that many other television series don’t quite know how to handle. And it’s part of the reason why “Transparent” is easily the best new show of 2014.