The rise of original online programming has revolutionized the way we consume television. But are any of these new shows actually worth watching? Up Next highlights noteworthy original content from Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Studios and examines how the flexible online format functions within each show. All you need is a laptop and your friend’s Netflix or Amazon Prime password.
A shining example of the democratic nature of web television, “Transparent” focuses on stories that network and cable television rarely examine in detail.
The show debuted through Amazon Studios’ second pilot season in February and was subsequently greenlighted for a full season, which became available on Sept. 26. After receiving rave reviews from critics and viewers, the dramatic comedy was renewed on Oct. 9 for a second season due some time next year.
Set in Los Angeles, “Transparent” follows elderly Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor of “Arrested Development” fame) as she comes out as a transgender woman to her children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman). In the midst of their own transitions, Sarah, Josh and Ali each handle the news in their own way. The show’s material partially stems from the experiences of creator and director Jill Soloway when her father came out as a transgender woman, though she says the plot is not overtly autobiographical.
While the show’s material may be questionable for network television, its frankness concerning gender freedom and sexuality makes “Transparent” perfect for the democratic web television platform.
With one of the few transgender protagonists in television history, the show addresses issues transgender individuals face, from common misconceptions to blatant prejudice. For example, Maura’s friend warns her that she may lose contact with her family, who could misunderstand or oppose her transition, and Maura senses this at times when her children are too absorbed in their own problems to actively support her.
Web television’s looser censorship also allows “Transparent” to be frank about its characters’ sexuality. Nevertheless, while the show features numerous sex scenes, the scenes rarely seem superfluous and offer portrayals of all types of sexual encounters: funny, awkward, romantic and sad. It’s a refreshing change from the sensationalized sex scenes of most network or cable shows, which often use sex as a ploy for viewership instead of as a narrative device.
Perhaps inspired by the democratization of web television, Soloway also abided by a “transfirmative action program” when hiring the cast, crew and extras, favoring transgender candidates over non-transgender ones. In addition, she hired two full-time transgender consultants to ensure authentic portrayals of transgender experiences. By allowing transgender men and women to speak through the characters, the writing helps viewers understand and relate to their perspectives. This marks a refreshing change from the common network decision to cast non-transgender actors as transgender characters, such as Alex Newell, who played transgender woman “Unique” Adams in “Glee,” and Brittany Daniel, who played transgender woman Carmen in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
The main departure from this “transfirmative action program” was Soloway’s decision to cast Tambor, a heterosexual male, as a transgender woman. But in watching a familiar male actor adopt a female identity, the viewer goes through a similar adjustment in perception as Maura’s children do.
“Transparent” also takes risks in storytelling with its focus on a later stage in a family’s timeline. Maura is in her 70s, which is uncommon for television protagonists. But by focusing on a different period in the family’s life, “Transparent” highlights the changing relationships of family members as they lead independent lives. It’s a far cry from typical sitcoms like “Modern Family.”
Released in complete installments, the show encourages bingeing, which the compelling writing tempts viewers to do. At first, I wished the writers would have adjusted the lengths of each episode to allow for embellishment on certain scenes, but the decision to make 10 30-minute episodes made for a tight season without extra fluff.
“Transparent” brings major credibility to Amazon Studios, a rising platform for web television. The show’s complex writing and studio-quality delivery rivals prestigious cable dramas and Netflix favorites like “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards.” With its superb cast, beautiful score and artistic directing, “Transparent” is sure to come up in the Emmy Award buzz next summer.
– Savannah Tate