Amazon Studios' piloting system for television shows is democratic and inventive, and feels like a good model for the future: The site launches a slew of TV pilots all at once on its Prime service, and then decides what to turn into series based on feedback from customers and the traction the shows get. The first bunch of Amazon pilots were posted last April — 14 went up, and four became series — and, as of this Thursday, 10 more are now available to watch and critique. X-Files creator Chris Carter did one; mystery writer Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch character has been adapted for television by Eric Overmyer; and there are five kids shows, including one by Wonder Pets creator Josh Selig. It's pretty cool. I can't wait to watch all of them.
But it's also anxiety-producing. Because what if I never see another episode of Transparent?
In creator/executive producer/director Jill Soloway's pilot, Jeffrey Tambor plays Mort, a well-off Los Angeles father of three adult children (Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker) who is transitioning into womanhood. Divorced from their mother (Judith Light) for years, and having been a "pussy hound," as his son describes him, he fears telling his children. Especially because, as he tells his transgender support group, "I don't know how I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves."
Transparent is a half hour, and it's certainly funny. The kids' lives are in varied stages of upper-middle-class white-person crisis. Hoffmann's Ali has no career, her Price Is Right prize money from six years ago has run out, and she seeks sexual fulfillment from working out with a bootcamp personal trainer. Landecker's wealthy stay-at-home wife/mother character, Sarah, seems disconnected from her husband, and is possibly a lesbian. And Duplass plays Josh, a man-child who dates women who are too young for him.
If you've seen Afternoon Delight, Soloway's 2013 movie that was also set among monied, neurotic Los Angeles Eastsiders, you will recognize these aging hipster types as hers. (I will note here that Soloway is my neighbor in that very same Eastside.) It's a world that feels lived-in already, and is a rich setup — it's also beautifully and filmically shot by Jim Frohna, who was the cinematographer on Afternoon Delight as well.
Transparent's examination of fascinating yet mundane lives has, of course, a big twist driven by Mort as he tries to evolve into Maura. Tambor, who has been acting for television for 37 years, plays his patented unhinged, patrician dad type with a very different aim here. As a father at dinner with his kids, he can be shout-y; as Maura, he seems gentle, and his eyes are full of sadness. But also some hope.
Transgender activists might well criticize casting Tambor, a cisgender actor, to play a trans character. Yet with the cultural and political climate for transgender people changing every day — as we see in wonderful ways with Laverne Cox's ascent and in troubling ones with the insensitive, cruel coverage of whatever is happening with Bruce Jenner — Transparent feels contemporary and significant. More, please.