Last April, Amazon dove into the original programming arms race. It made eight comedy pilots, put them on the Internet, and then selected the best two to expand into full series. The original batch of pilots all had a DIY, goofy, occasionally experimental vibe, excepting Garry Trudeau’s congressmen comedy Alpha House, which alone looked like a show that could air on a old-fashioned, broadcast-to-a-television network. (It was one of the shows Amazon picked up). Last week, Amazon unveiled five new pilots, and it’s clear they have learned an important lesson about original content in the interim, one Netflix has long since grasped: If you want to make a splash as a fledgling provider of must-see TV, make something that could be on HBO. Call it the House of Cards precept: Your brand may be all about originality, binge-watching, and fresh business models, but that only works if you give the people a show that looks like one they already happily pay for. Amazon has finally made one of those.
Amazon’s new pilots are more professional and slick than the cute, homemade series it previously commissioned. The two dramas, Bosch, about a tortured LA cop named Hieronymus Bosch—yes, the show lays it on that thick—and The After, a post-apocalyptic drama from The X-Files’ Chris Carter that stars a French actress wholly unequipped to act in English, are both mediocre versions of network series, with additional cursing. They aren’t any good, but it’s easy to imagine some version of them airing in the summer on NBC. One of the comedies, The Rebels—if Major League were about a Los Angeles football team—is only better because it’s shorter. Mozart in the Jungle, created by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timbers and set in the world of New York classical musicians, is sweet and charming if a little unformed. It does, at least, feature Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo, a swashbuckling conductor with cockatoo hair, alongside television’s very first female oboist as a protagonist.
But towering above all of these shows is Jill Soloway’s Transparent, an honest to goodness great pilot that feels—and I mean this as a compliment—exactly like one of those HBO shows with a 1-to-1 ratio of viewers to think pieces. Ostensibly a half-hour comedy, Transparent is very much like Louie and Girls in its relationship to humor, which is conditional. It stars Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker as three grown, Los Angelino siblings and Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light as their divorced parents—a cast that makes for as good company as it sounds like it should.
The show’s title is a pun, but Soloway, who was a big part of Six Feet Under, is interested in transparency as more than a play on words. Tambor’s character tells Hoffman’s, “It’s so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see,” and she shrugs him off, preferring to pretend she’s better at camouflaging her unhappiness than she actually is. Everyone in the family is hiding feelings they only think they are hiding, particularly about sex, desire, and gender, which, needless to say, are the most enticing kind of hang-ups.
The show has authenticity and specificity. The family is immediately recognizable as a very true-to-life nominally Jewish, L.A.-bred, casually super-affluent clan (I wasn’t lying about all those think pieces), and the siblings have a fluid, familiar way of taking the piss out of each other. By the episode’s last act, when we learn that the parent played by Tambor is coming out as trans—there’s the pun—I was already completely invested in the characters and a much lower-stakes version of the show. As Netflix has demonstrated, in this brave new TV world, it doesn’t matter what the ratings are—don’t even bother releasing them!—so long as a company gets the right people on Twitter chattering about the addictive properties of one of its shows. Transparent already has me addicted.