‘Transparent’ returns with family wedding but few happy endings

8 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Transparent': Where Amazon TV stands as the show’s second season debuts.

Amazon, which was previously best known as an online retailer, debuted the show starring “Arrested Development” actor Jeffrey Tambor in early 2014.

The talented and Emmy-Winning Jeffrey Tambor joins Tracy to chat about the second season of his high anticipated hit series, “Transparent,” a half-hour series that explores family, identity, sex, and love. The program quickly racked up awards and nominations, with the show being nominated for best comedy series at the Emmy Awards and Tambor winning the award for best actor in a comedy at both the Emmys and the Golden Globes. Tambor recently was awarded an Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award® for his portrayal of Maura, who spent her life as Mort, the Pfefferman family patriarch. But when Jeffrey Tambor, an accomplished actor in both comedies and dramas, captured the top actor honors for his role in Amazon Prime’s Transparent, it represented a major step forward in multiple areas. First, anyone who grew up with TV in the 1950s and ’60s before full color — let alone the 500-plus channel universe and the advent of streaming — knows LGBT characters were even more rare on the air than nonwhites.

Second, though it is coming on fast, Amazon Prime isn’t yet Netflix or Hulu: for it to dent the Emmy voters’ consciousness says a lot about the gains those services are making. Third, Tambor’s win boosted Transparent’s status as another show that convinces viewers to stray from the traditional networks and even the premium-cable model. The company had debuted the John Goodman comedy “Alpha House” before, but “Alpha” didn’t get half the attention that “Transparent” gained. That Tambor won for (brilliantly) portraying the transgendered character Maura (né Mort) only added to the feeling that the television revolution had moved into a new phase.

As with competitor Netflix, we don’t have as clear a view of whether a show is a success or a failure when it’s on streaming as we would with, say, a broadcast show, where viewership numbers would be available. Season 1 of “Transparent” focused on Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), who, having lived most of seven decades as Mort, came out to her adult children as a transgender woman, going from Dad to “Moppa.” (Hence the pun of the series title.) Mr. Tambor was a revelation — afraid and determined, warm and prickly — and it would have been understandable for Season 2 to simply build a bigger showcase for his deservedly Emmy Award-winning performance. Creator Jill Soloway has opted to move both backward and forward, with some episodes flashing back to the ’30s to show Maura’s family in progressive prewar Berlin as the Nazis began their rise to power.

Instead, Season 2, whose 10 half-hour episodes begin on Friday on Amazon, broadens its focus to the vast extended Pfefferman mishpocheh: children, in-laws, exes and long-gone ancestors. His unforgettable roles in such popular programs as The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development reveal his unique comedic gifts, while his roles in films such as And Justice for All and Meet Joe Black display the depth of his dramatic sensibilities. He just wrapped The Accountant opposite Ben Affleck, and is currently lending his voice to roles in the upcoming animated films Amusement Park and Trolls. The spotlight also shines on other family members such as Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Josh (Jay Duplass), while Maura’s ex Shelly (Judith Light) stilltries to cope with the fact that the Mort she loved is gone.

Ultimately, though, the show’s success will hinge upon Tambor, whose Maura has been a revelation for viewers with little to no familiarity with either LGBT issues in general or the particular problems faced by transgendered people. While it’s ridiculous to suggest that Transparent alone makes up for the dearth of characters like Maura on TV, the show is another indicator of changing times. It has yet to attain the cultural ubiquity and stable of high-profile programs of, for example, Netflix, but the company has shown that acclaimed shows can find a home there. Amazon’s original programming is still a work in progress, but the streaming service has already gotten its name into the increasingly crowded TV conversation.

Given all the recent bad publicity it has earned for a variety of things, the city of Chicago should be giving producer Dick Wolf plaudits for boosting with city with his franchise of successful Chicago-set TV properties, despite the fact they routinely get savaged by critics. But really, it treats the family itself as a protagonist, an organism that maintains collective quirks and personality even as its members evolve and transform, are born and grow old.

While It isn’t beating CBS’ NCIS: New Orleans, it is finishing a solid second each week, dispatching ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the CW’s iZombie. The idea that family is memory — that ancestral experiences and trauma are passed down like heirlooms — comes through in the season’s most daring device, a running flashback to the family’s roots in Weimar Germany, whose flowering of intellectual and sexual freedom is about to be quashed by the Nazis. Hopefully Wolf will instead pursue a reboot of Law and Order, a show better than all three of his Chicago series, which bit the dust over controversies about salaries and number of episodes. Cherry Jones is magnetic as a charismatic radical-feminist poet whom Ali seeks out as a mentor; Alexandra Billings (one of several transgender cast members) deepens her role as Davina, who had a rougher road than her privileged friend Maura. (“Transparent” is very conscious of the dollars-and-cents costs of transitioning.) This Los Angeles tour of sex and identity is as intersectional as a 405 interchange, and it could all play like a graduate gender studies seminar if it weren’t so overtly funny. The show finds comedy in a shaman at a “wimmin’s music” festival (“Some of you I know from my drumming away racism group”) and in the culture clash when the Pfeffermans meet Colton’s conservative Christian adoptive family. (The paterfamilias greets Maura as “Colton’s Mee-Maw.”) Yet the show respects each character’s sincerity.

Its spirit is that anything can be funny, but nothing is risible. “Transparent” is one of a rare few socially conscious television series — “The Wire” is another — whose sense of message and responsibility heightens rather than burdens it. In Episode 3 (directed by Marielle Heller, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), Ali meets some lesbian friends in a bowling alley, and the camera flits around the room from woman to woman — laughing, drinking, nuzzling, flirting, being. Maybe the greatest accomplishment of “Transparent” is that any Pfefferman can be, at the same time, your most and least favorite. (For instance, Maura’s ex-wife, Shelly, played by Judith Light, is both comically self-centered and a deeply sympathetic survivor.) Even the core story, Maura’s transition, is entree to a larger philosophy that life and people are complicated and that is what makes both beautiful.

Late in this season, Maura gives Ali a little unsolicited, Moppa-ly advice: Be skeptical of those who are overly certain, as comforting as absolute answers and clear binaries can be. “I suggest it’s always wise to steer clear of people who are overly attached to dogma,” she says.

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