The individual elements of Amazon's new pilot Transparent seem like something straight out of the Sundance summary handbook: hot indie director + Duplass brother + quirky family + an older man becoming a woman. But Jill Soloway's lovely pilot has become Amazon's proof to critics that it has something to match Netflix when it comes to quality original programming.
Transparent is one of the five pilots Amazon released last week, one of which, Mozart in the Jungle, we reviewed last week. Mozart in the Jungle was already way better than anything amazon tried last year—a fun, promising show about the sex lives of classical musicians in New York with a great cast. Transparent is a more concentrated effort than Mozart, which has a such a sprawling story it feels like it cant' be tackled in one half hour episode. Meanwhile, Transparent's first episode feels more like a short film than a start of a TV show, even though we definitely want to see more.
Soloway's show looks at the lives of three LA-based siblings, each floundering in their own way. Gaby Hoffmann's Ali is half-heartedly pitching ideas for quirky books you might find in Urban Outfitters. Jay Duplass's Josh is in the music industry and is sleeping with one of the young members of a band. Amy Landecker's Sarah is a married mother rekindling a flame with an ex-lover who happens to be female. They are all too wrapped up in their problems to notice that their father, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is going through a change more drastic than they could imagine. Considering the pilot Tambor did for Amazon last year, the jokey and over the top Onion News Empire, his work here is really a quite revelation. George Bluth has depth.
The pilot is bathed in a warm, Californian light, and the soundtrack of poppy folk—Jim Croce's music plays an appreciated outsized role—allows the strangeness of Soloway's story to seep through in an unassuming way. This family is definitely in an off kilter world, and you get the sense that Tambor's Mort, on his way to becoming Moira, is the only member that is really being true to himself.
Amazon would be loathe to ignore the quality of Transparent. It would also be loathe to ignore the buzz around it. Kate Aurthur at BuzzFeed said that Amazon's systems of putting their pilots up for review before picking up series is "anxiety-producing." Because what if I never see another episode ofTransparent?" Time's James Poniewozik tweeted: "Pick it, America, or we're not friends." Slate's Willa Paskin called it Amazon's House of Cards.
Transparent, as good as it is, is also simply an important moment for Amazon. It has a large crowd rooting for it.