They say we are living in a golden age of television. If that’s the case, Jill Soloway’s new pilot deserves its own unit of commerce. Ruby? Sapphire? It’s a cut above the rest, and it’s fucking amazing and you should drop everything you are doing and watch it right now.
A dark family comedy about sex and self, “Transparent” is “Girls” meets “Parenthood,” with some “Louie” mixed in. The plot revolves around a classic Jewish L.A. family, including divorced parents Judith Light (sublime!) and Jeffrey Tambor (almost unbearably good, equal parts vulnerable and funny), and their offspring: Jay Duplass as Josh, a music producer who we meet in bed playing with the boobs of a blond cutie; Amy Landecker as Sarah, a housewife we first glimpse hurriedly rushing her kids to school; and the astoundingly good Gaby Hoffman as Ali, a depressive twenty-something with big ideas and no money. The kids are touchingly close, and they are called in by Tambor for a family summit in which the truth he plans to tell them ends up buried, rather than revealed.
The show is equally compassionate and disdainful towards its characters, both distant from and reveling in their upper-middle-class lifestyle. (“If you don’t raise five grand for Tu B’Shevat, Dana Goodman just implodes,” quips Sarah’s erstwhile lesbian lover during school drop-off.) But it also seems to be asking viewers whether to accept or deny the father’s accusation that his children are selfish and unable to see beyond themselves, especially since the carefully guarded secret of this family’s patriarch—his transgender identity—has seeped into his kids’ psycho-sexual lives.
As the pilot unravels, we see the siblings responding individually to the truth their father fails to reveal. They seem somehow to intuit that the masculine center of their family is in flux, or perhaps, was never quite there. Ali goes in search of a trainer in the park for an old-fashioned dose of discipline in its modern masquerade—a punishing workout. Josh finds himself in the lap of someone quite the opposite of his blond bedfellow, a woman with big curly hair and large floppy breasts who tells him to get comfortable. He lies down on the floor (in the exact position in which we first see Sarah’s son), and lays his head near the woman’s crotch. Is he looking to replace his emasculated father? Or perhaps searching for the mother figure he senses waiting to emerge? And Sarah finds herself reignited by her college girlfriend, seeking out her less hetero-normative former self. The kids do see their dad for what he is, if only unconsciously, evidenced by their search for a father—or mother—figure. And Dad, too, has something to learn, should the series get picked up.
In addition to being smart and sexy, “Transparent” is also genuinely funny. “Dad’s not getting engaged—he’s too much of a pussy-hound,” says Josh on their way to the summit. “Really he’s a Marcy-hound,” Ali corrects him. “Haven’t the last six been Marcys?” (I won’t ruin it, but when the three kids try to pronounce the Jewish last names of the Marcys, hilarity ensues).
With characteristic aplomb, Jill Soloway gives us something to wonder about, something to be surprised by, something to be aroused by, and something to laugh at. A lusciously downcast soundtrack lends the whole thing a distinctively Soloway melancholy; one senses that things are not going to be OK, but somehow, it’s better that way. The only weakness is the portrayal of minorities—Ali’s black trainer and Sarah’s lesbian ex-girlfriend seem a little too close to a white liberal’s fantasy. But perhaps Soloway means this as a critique of her characters, who put these individuals to use in satisfying their cravings. We’ll only know if the show gets picked up by Amazon, so watch it and say yes to “Transparent”!