DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Thanks to Netflix, many of us are familiar with the concept of new TV series that premiere not a broadcast or cable television but on a streaming Internet service. And Netflix isn't the only streaming service getting into the act. Starting today, Amazon prime subscribers have access to the entire first season of a new series called "Transparent," starring Jeffrey Tambor. It may be difficult to find, but it's worth the effort. Amazon has been at this original programming stuff for a while now, but "Transparent" is the first show I felt deserves individual notice. Transparent is created by Jill Soloway, who directed the movie "Afternoon Delight" and, more to the point for TV fans, was a provider producer on HBO's "Six Feet Under."
That was a wonderful series about a complicated, often dysfunctional, usually volatile, family - and so is "Transparent." Jeffrey Tambor stars as Mort Pfefferman, the patriarch of a fractured family. His wife Shelley, played by the delightful sitcom veteran Judith Light, divorced him more than a decade ago. Their three grown children have their own lives, all of which are messy. And when Mort invites the kids to dinner at his place they all fear that he is about to tell me he has cancer - but that's not it. What he wants to tell them is that he's decided, at age 70, to makes some very significant life changes. He's in therapy and attending a support group in order to ease the transition to his new identity as a she - as Moira - after a lifetime of denying her inner and real self by, as she puts it, dressing up like a man.
Tambor plays this character completely straight, so to speak, with no hint of cheap humor. And it's Tambor's commitment to the role that makes "Transparent" work so well and so quickly. When Moira, dressed in a wig and a loose fitting blouse, explains to her support group where she is in her journey to a new sexual identity, there's no condescension whatsoever - not from the group is certainly not from the way Tambor plays her.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Moira) I made a commitment here last week that I was going to come out to my kids and I didn't do it - because it just wasn't time. You know? But I will and it will be soon I promise you, I promise you. I promise you. They are so selfish, I don't know, it is how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.
BIANCULLI: In the four episodes of "Transparent" I've previewed, those children, played by Gabby Hoffman and Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker, all have their own issues which are thrown into a different perspective as their father become someone new to them. They all establish the roles quickly and draw you into their own respective storylines. And Judith Light, as the acerbic and witty ex-wife, does a great job with a very meaty role. One of the surprises with "Transparent" is how traditional it is despite its unusual premise.
The closest thing to it on TV right now is NBC's "Parenthood," a drama with lots of sometimes dark humor about a family filled with very different personality's types, who somehow found ways to connect with and support one another, except when they don't. But give Jeffrey Tambor special props for not only doing such smart and very empathic work on this role, but also for taking it in the first place. His career may be one of the most impressive in TV history if you're looking at actors who have appeared in ground-breaking risk-taking television shows. He's averaged at least one per decade - "Hill Street Blues," "Max Headroom" and "L.A. Law" in the '80s, the "Larry Sanders Show" where he was absolutely brilliant as talk-show sidekick Hank Kingsley in the '90s, the equally amazing "Arrest Development" to start the new century and so far this decade a recurring role on "The Good Wife" and now an attention-getting attention deserving role on "Transparent." "Transparent" is a drama slash comedy series that could, in theory, make the Emmy nominations next year in either of those categories - it's that good. Oh and one other thing about "Transparent" impressed me, but only long after I watched the episodes.
It was a few days later when it finally hit me that the show's title was a world-class pun. In "Transparent" Jeffrey stars as a Trans parent. One other quick TV related note before we go, tonight on PBS live from Lincoln Center presents the wonderful concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd filmed earlier this year with Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett. Do yourself a favor and tonight on public television, attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
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