It doesn't really matter how exciting and novel the premise of a TV show is - if the viewers don't like the characters, they aren't going to stick around to watch them. Transparent is ostensibly a sitcom about Mort, a father of 3 who is transitioning into being a woman, Maura. (Mort/Maura is played to perfection by Jeffrey Tambor, of Arrested Development fame). Whether you are someone who is thrilled that an entire TV series is being made about a transgender journey, or someone who thinks that you'd like to watch nothing less doesn't really matter.
Because becoming Maura is merely the premise of the show. What makes it a stand-out, approachable, inclusive piece of TV is that it is populated by characters we want to see more of. Characters that are selfish, and foolish, and likeable and distasteful and horribly, perpetually watchable.
The premise of the show would suggest that Mort, and his increasingly public move into being Maura, would be the centre of the series. But the pilot turns these expectations on their head: we are introduced first to Maura's three children. We are thrust immediately into Josh's world - a successful record executive who appears to only represent beautiful slips of young women, who he also sleeps with.
A more heavy-handed show would encourage Josh to leave this superficial, appearance-obsessed life. Transparent presents it to us as it is: this is Josh's life, and he is busy living it. It falls to his sister, Ali, to point out that he really ought to fill his fridge with something his visitors might like to eat, such as 'juice packs and string cheese.' Josh ignores Ali, both because she is his sister, but also because Ali herself is a recognizable mess: a twenty-something drifter type, who tells her friends she wants to create the kind of book Urban Outfitter lines its checkouts with, and who relies on parental handouts to make rent. The third of Maura's children is Sarah, a married stay-at-home mother of two, whose husband is treated with contempt by both her and her younger siblings.
The children don't know about Maura yet, but it doesn't matter. This is a show about family: about the messy, chaotic, impossible ties that bind us. We watch Transparent because of Ali, who despite 'scoring in the 99th percentile in her SATS' still hasn't quite found her way. We watch Sarah as she re-connects with her college lesbian lover at her children's school, willfully jeopardizing a life she has already out-grown.
Mort invites them all over for dinner, hoping to find the courage to tell his children about Maura. Ali, Josh and Sarah panic and speculate wildly about why he's invited them, assuming that it must be cancer. As the characters speak over one another, challenging and interrupting other people's lines, we come to see that Transparent's glory lies not in its original and brave telling of Maura's journey, but in its depiction of all of the journeys.
Transparent is a series about journeys, and family, who come with us on our journeys, no matter how much we'd rather they didn't. It is an honest, unflinching look at the lies we tell ourselves and other people, and the identities we try to maintain. In one, excellent moment, Sarah briefly mentions that she has bumped into her former girlfriend. Even as she is telling Ali, she tries to dismiss it. 'Everyone was gay in college. It's no big deal.' 'You were talking about adopting a kid,' Ali reminds her. In a family, re-invention can be fraught with danger.
Transparent is already available, in its first season entirety, on Amazon Prime. The pilot offers us much to get behind in terms of the series' plot development, its exciting and original premise, and plenty of areas for potential conflict. But its real gift is its characters. Characters who, one senses, would find it easier to deal with their father having (much less embarrassing) cancer than becoming transgender, who pick up personal trainers in the park in order to seduce them, who search for a sense of purpose in sex, and who want to cling to a past that they felt they ought to have outgrown: these are characters worth watching. And Transparent is filled with them.