Chicago native Jill Soloway creates season’s best new show, ‘Transparent’
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You won’t find what’s arguably the best new show of the fall TV season — certainly the bravest — on traditional television.
All 10 episodes of “Transparent” will be available for streaming Friday to Amazon Prime subscribers.
Having instant access to the entire first season is a blessing for viewers prone to bingeing because the more you learn about “Transparent’s” Pfefferman clan, the more you want to know.
“This family presented themselves to me fully formed,” said creator and Chicago native Jill Soloway, whose ambitious series is a riveting exploration of gender, sexuality and family dynamics.
Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) stars as Maura, who’s spent her adult life as Mort, the Pfefferman family patriarch. The story follows Maura’s transgender transition as she reintroduces herself to her three adult children, each grappling with his or her own secrets, issues and self-absorption.
“I’ve always thought about the familiar Disney trope of the parent that dies in the first five minutes,” said Soloway, a former writer and producer for HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” where that very scenario played out. “I thought, ‘What would it be like to have one parent die and another parent be born?’”
Available Friday on Amazon Prime Instant Video
Tambor, 70, delivers a powerful performance — laced with just the right amount of melancholy — as the titular character of a show whose name has multiple meanings.
“I knew this was the role of a lifetime,” the prolific actor said during an interview after he, Soloway and other cast members, including former Chicagoan Amy Landecker, talked about the Amazon Studios series at the TV critics’ summer press tour.
Landecker (“Louie”) plays Maura’s sexually conflicted, oldest daughter, Sarah, who accidentally discovers her dad dressed as a woman.
“The first episode when I had to talk to my daughter about this, I thought I — as the actor — was going to die,” Tambor said. “Then I thought, ‘It’s good for your heart to be beating like this. This is what you went into acting for.’”
“Transparent” is a deeply personal project for Soloway, whose own family has dealt with many of the same issues that propel the show’s drama.
Soloway’s father, a psychiatrist, came out as transgender several years ago.
“There’s a lot of things in this story that resonate with our family,” said the auteur whose duties include writing, directing and producing the series.
The married mother of two — she now calls Los Angeles home — grew up in a Jewish household near Bridgeport in South Commons before the family moved to the Gold Coast.
She and her older sister, Faith, went to Lane Tech High School. The close-knit siblings co-developed a cult hit with their live parody of “The Brady Bunch” that debuted at Annoyance Theatre in the early ‘90s.
At age 25, Faith came out as a lesbian.
“It was definitely that feeling that ‘Transparent’ is about: ‘We’ve always known, but we haven’t known that we’ve known,’” Soloway said about her sister’s announcement.
The two collaborated more recently when they penned material for their pal Jane Lynch when she hosted the Emmys in 2011.
Jill hired Faith as one of the writers for “Transparent.”
“As soon as the show got picked up,” Soloway said, I called Faith [in Boston] and said, ‘Come out to L.A., we’re going to put on a show again, Sis!’”
Gaby Hoffmann (“Girls”) does a remarkable turn as Maura’s under-achieving daughter, Ali, while Jay Duplass (“The Mindy Project”) is Ali and Sarah’s money-minded, record-producer brother.
“My sister and I are both all three kids,” said Soloway, whose mother, Elaine, is a longtime public relations consultant in Chicago.
Elaine remarried a man who went on to suffer from dementia and aphasia, much like the mother in “Transparent.” That character is portrayed by Judith Light (“Who’s the Boss?”), complete with short gray hair and glasses that evoke Elaine’s image. (“She has a blog that you must mention or I will be killed,” Soloway said, referring to Elaine’s “Rookie Widow” writings.)
While elements of the characters and subject matter are close to home for Soloway, last year’s Sundance-winning director (“Afternoon Delight”) wanted to tackle a topic that’s ripe for discussion.
“Transness is something that feels like it’s trending,” she said. “It just feels like the next frontier. It’s exciting that this show might be part of the beginning of a changing of the national temperature.”
One thing that’s already changed is the way viewers watch television. Bingeing is booming — a trend only made stronger by streaming services’ predilection to release a flood of episodes at once.
“This is a new universe we’re entering into about how media is consumed and whether these are episodes of television or a five-hour movie that has breaks in it,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to feel rushed. I want them to take it in however they want.”