‘Transparent’ leads transgender revolution

On Amazon Prime • Online streaming series heads into second season of comedy and drama.

When "Transparent" first streamed on Amazon Prime, it was on the cutting edge of American culture.

A 10-part series about a retired college professor — a husband and father — who is transgender was not something you'd see on network television. Not something you'd see on FX, HBO or Showtime, even.

"I think about being here a year ago and how much has changed in the past year," said creator/writer/executive producer Jill Soloway, who based the series on her family. "It's kind of mind-blowing about how our culture has sort of caught up to Trans 101."

To the surprise and delight of all those involved, "Transparent" received widespread critical praise and was nominated for 11 Emmys, winning five. The 10-episode second season of "Transparent" begins streaming Friday, Dec. 11.

"In a short period of time, creator Jill Soloway has gone from TV writer to Sundance Fest director to being named one of Time's most influential people," said Joe Lewis, head of half-hour TV at Amazon Studios.

(Soloway's TV writing credits include "Six Feet Under" and "Grey's Anatomy," and she won the best-director award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival for her "Afternoon Delight," which she also wrote.)

"Transparent" didn't create the transgender media wave, but it certainly caught the crest of it. The pilot streamed in February 2014; the entire 10-episode first season the following September — seven months before Bruce Jenner came out as transgender and introduced herself as Caitlyn Jenner. And 10 months before the debut of the ABC Family reality series "Becoming Us," which is also about a family with a transgender parent.

Transgender politics has been much in the news, including the defeat at the ballot box of an equal-rights ordinance in Houston — a defeat attributed to an argument made by opponents that protections for the transgender community would allow men to use women's restrooms.

But the news for the transgender community has been overwhelmingly positive since "Transparent" premiered — coincidentally or not.

"Over the course of the past year, as it has become this tsunami and in the zeitgeist, the most exciting part is the civil-rights movement — that rights are being gotten for trans people every day," Soloway said. "And the publicity around the kinds of ways in which trans people are discriminated against, [the] suicide rates, the murder rates, that's all coming to light.

"And even though we're making a television show — we're making entertainment, we're ostensibly making comedy — to feel like it's all for a larger cause is the most exciting part of all of this."

"Transparent" is the story of the Pfefferman family. Season 1 revolved around Mort (Jeffrey Tambor, who won an Emmy for this role) coming out as Maura, and the effect it has on his ex-wife, Shelley (Judith Light), and their adult children — Josh (Jay Duplass), Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Alex (Gaby Hoffman).

The show is not, however, about advocacy. It doesn't hit viewers over the head with its point of view, it simply tells its story as honestly as possible.

"We don't really discuss current events," Soloway said. "In general, I always try to leave out any pop-culture references in anything I write because I want things to be timeless."

Season 2 actually focuses more on the younger Pfeffermans than it does on Maura.

"I think what's brilliant about this year is Maura is more not the central figure, but sort of the gateway figure now for so many stories that are evolving from this decision to be authentic," Tambor said. "And I think that's kind of where we're throwing down and saying, 'Will you still love me if I change?'

"It's becoming more than just a story about a trans parent or transitioning. It's about people seeking their freedom."

"Transparent" is not the first TV series to feature a transgender character, but it is the first to revolve around a transgender character; the first scripted series to make that both the premise and the primary plot point.

"Amazon has really thrown down here," Tambor said. "This is not an easy show, and they picked this up this so nimbly."

(Amazon has already ordered a third season of "Transparent.")

This remains a very personal project for Soloway, whose father came out as transgender in 2011.

"The show was kind of writing itself in my mind almost immediately after my parent came out," said Soloway, who said she'd spent 15 years "writing pilots every year and kind of just dreaming about having a show that mattered."

"I used to go on pitch meetings and say, 'I want to write something that nobody's ever written before, and I want to write something that's going to change the world.' "

And Soloway said the characters in "Transparent" simply "introduced themselves to me in my head."

"It really just presented itself fully formed as a way that I could write a love letter to my parent and hope that it would affect the world in a way that would make the world slightly safer for [transgender people] to walk out of their apartment building, hail a taxi, stand in the elevator with strangers. I think that in the same way that parents want their kids to be safe, kids want their parents to be safe. You want your family to feel safe in the world. It was a very sort of small gesture."


Twitter: @ScottDPierce

Season 2

The 10-episode second season of "Transparent" begins streaming on Friday, Dec. 11, on Amazon Prime.

Courtesy | Amazon Studios Kathryn Hahn as Raquel and Jay Duplass as Josh in “Transparent.”