This is a “surprise” review because Transparent was not a television series that I expected to be watching. At least, not watching anytime soon; perhaps ever.
Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying, please. It has nothing to do with the subject matter. While it’s true that I don’t have an overwhelming interest in transgender studies, that doesn’t mean that I would go out of my way to avoid the topic. It’s just that there’s a whole lot of stuff out there to watch, much of it well within my wheelhouse. I just didn’t think this was one of the shows that was going to make the cut on my already-crowded list.
As with many things in my life, it was my wife, Sharon, who made the difference here.
Since we finished watching Grimm a while back, we haven’t really had a series that we watch together. Our interests tend to diverge in regards to television. Her tastes are largely reality-TV focused, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. My tastes lean heavily towards fiction, and within that subset, heavily towards speculative fiction—superhero shows, or science-fiction type programming. And, no, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that either. Occasionally, a show such as Grimm will catch our mutual interest. Or, Lost, which we watched together. Or, This Is Us, which was one of our favorites last season.
Sharon had recorded a few episodes of Transparent on the Sundance Channel. After watching these, she told me that she thought I would like the program. Based on her recommendation, I was willing to give it a shot. As always, my beautiful and perceptive wife was correct. I love this show. I immediately located the show on our Kodi smart TV box, so that we could watch it without commercials, and we plowed our way through the 10-episode first season.
I was already a Jeffrey Tambour fan from his days as Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show and as George Bluth on Arrested Development. In Transparent, he plays retired political science professor Mort Pfefferman, who has decided, late in life, to live as his feminine identity Maura Pfefferman. The first season is mostly about Maura coming out to her family and their reaction. As it turns out, his ex-wife Shelly (played by Judith Light), has known about the feminine side of Mort for years. Their eldest child, daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) is at first the most accepting of their offspring, but she is going through her own “coming-out” as well, as she leaves her husband for an ex-roomate she once had a lesbian relationship with. Son Josh (Jay Duplass) is a music producer who has trouble maintaining a relationship with any woman, and he is intially the most resistant to his father’s new lifestyle. Youngest daughter Alexandra, or Ali (Gaby Hoffman), seems to be a lost soul refusing to grow up, and she is also exploring her own sexuality in the series. Strictly heterosexual during the first season, but her best friend Syd Feldman (Carrie Brownstein) admits that she’s sexually attracted to Ali before the season ends. I imagine this will take the Ali character to new places.
The show also actively explores Jewish religious themes. The Pfefferman’s are culturally Jewish, but they’re far from devout. Josh begins a relationship with Rabbi Raquel Fein (Kathryn Hahn) during Season 1. Shelly’s second husband, Ed, passes away during the season, so we get to peek into Jewish funeral customs and rites.
For a non-Jewish viewer such as myself, this look into the world of Judaism is as unfamiliar as the exposure to the transgender community issues. I am always interested in learning more about subjects I know little about.
The series is hard to pin down to a single genre. Much like This is Us. It is drama. It is comedy. It is slice-of-life and fantasy at the same time. There’s a lot of sex and occasional nudity on the program, so it’s not for the kiddies. And the transgender topics are handled with sensitivity and taste. I would prefer to watch this over anything with Caitlyn Jenner in it any day. I don’t mean to offend anyone with that statement. I just can’t stomach watching anything Kardashian adjacent.
The main cast is fantastic, but the supporting cast is equally so. Melora Hardin plays Sarah’s lesbian love interest Tammy. I knew her face but couldn’t place her until I Googled her. She played Jan Levinson on the American version of The Office. She was great on that show as well. Rob Heubel is a familiar face from television and movie comedies, and he is excellent as Sarah Pfefferman’s husband. Bradley Whitford plays Mort’s cross-dressing friend Mark, and appears in several episodes as Marcy.
I enjoyed watching the first season of this series. And I look forward to catching up on the rest.
See, a show doesn’t have to have superheroes or Klingons in it for me to watch it.