The best thing Amazon did for its new show ‘Transparent’ was doing nothing at all

The full season of Transparent, part of the latest slate of original programming from Amazon, debuts on Sept. 26. Already, the entertainment press has taken to calling it Amazon’s House of Cards — its own version of a buzzy, viral show like Netflix’s Kevin Spacey-led look at the dark side of politics. Many believe Transparent has the potential to turn heads – and hook viewers.

It’s not just because of Transparent’s unconventional story, the broad strokes of which include a family patriarch played by Jeffrey Tambor who decides to live the rest of his life as a woman. Show creator Jill Soloway – who brings significant artistic heft to the project, with her resume including stints as a writer and producer for HBO’s Six Feet Under – told Digital Trends she creatively swung for the fences, and that Amazon gave her plenty of space to do so.

Such gambles are almost a necessity these days for showrunners like Soloway, who take their original projects to Web-based services like Amazon. In an on-demand world, Soloway explains, for people to “demand” your show, you have to give them a can’t-miss product that cuts through the noise. She hopes that Transparent‘s first 10-episode season, the lead-off episode of which is already online, is binge worthy.

“When I went to Amazon meetings, it wasn’t like pitching at a TV network,” Soloway tells Digital Trends. “It was exciting. It felt like the future. If you’re at one of the networks, you go through an entire process of really shaving down parts of the show. Anything that could offend anyone goes, because they’re in the business of courting advertisers. Amazon doesn’t have the brand of HBO, though, so they need a product where people say, ‘You need to see this show.’

“When I went to Amazon meetings, it wasn’t like pitching at a TV network. It was exciting. It felt like the future.

“It’s a mandate for me to go to my riskiest spaces as an artist.”

Not that risk doesn’t happen at a traditional network. As much as he loves what Amazon is doing, show star Jeffrey Tambor, for example, insists he doesn’t want to come off as “the anti-network guy.” But he does see services like Amazon and content like Transparent as threats to the status quo because they represent, to him, a much-needed revolution in TV entertainment.

Tambor says he also loves the convenience, the artistic freedom, and immediacy of how streaming services like Amazon do what they do. And he told Digital Trends that Transparent afforded him a rare opportunity — the chance to play the kind of role “you just don’t get at 70.”

It’s the kind of role that calls for him, at one point, to respond with palpable emotional resonance to one of his children who asks whether he’ll be dressing up as a woman all the time now: “No, all my life I’ve been dressing up as a man … This is me.”

Reading through the script, packed with moments like that, he says he fell in love with the story, and it didn’t matter that the platform was Amazon. The story, he says, was “so singular, so beautiful.”

“I think people and programmers better pay attention,” says Tambor, who’s trod similar ground already at Netflix, where he reprised the character of George Bluth for the Netflix-exclusive season four of Arrested Development.

Transparent TV Show from Amazon Studios
Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor (Image: Amazon Studios)

“Here’s the deal. An actor will run to something that’s good and has quality. The world I was born into, in 1944, I remember when we had to get up and walk to the set and turn to channel 2 to watch Ed Sullivan. Now, I can walk to the subway and watch two episodes of Transparent. I like it and welcome it. I own a bookstore, Skylight Books, in Los Angeles. I also have two Kindles I’m looking at right now. I like it all, paper and Kindles. I like shows like (Amazon’s) Alpha House and the networks. The world is changing. It’s content-heavy. The risk is back. The storytellers are back.”

Soloway, who won a directing award at Sundance in 2013 for her film Afternoon Delight, says the way that Amazon manages its original programming – votes from the public, and Netflix-esque binge-ability, for example – carry obvious lessons for traditional outlets. She zeroes in on something more subtle, though, which she thinks Amazon gets right and which helps it go where networks don’t.

“On any other television show, over at the place called ‘video village’ where the monitors are, you’ll find anywhere between three and 10 people with their arms folded,” she says. “They’ll be asking the unconscious question, ‘Are you guys getting this right for us? Are we going to be able to make money from this?’ That’s hovering across the performances and the vibe on the set.

The way that Amazon manages its original programming carries obvious lessons for traditional outlets.

“What Amazon allows us to do by, frankly, not showing up – they come to visit for maybe 15 minutes, and they don’t stand there making me feel like it’s my job to deliver them a product that I’m maybe going to get right or wrong. Instead, they really privilege the process. Sure, it’s a product, but we all get to live in this space where the process is the most important thing. We feel like we’re making an independent film, and it’s 1976, and we’re Cassavetes and we’re really free – so we better go for our edges and our risk spaces.”

Before throwing in with Amazon, Soloway had at first taken her project to “each of the usual suspects.” Her script had been sent to HBO, Showtime, IFC, Netflix, and Amazon.

Back then, she regarded them all more or less as equals. And she wasn’t thinking at that point about a digital platform.

“As I began to talk to people, even though places like HBO and Showtime were interested, I’d get slotted into the usual development process, which means tons of notes from executives and maybe the pilot never gets made,” Soloway said, describing Amazon’s process as “nimble and fast.”

“TV needs to do more than what it used to do, because we’re competing with people who can be engrossed in a drama about themselves on Facebook or a video game they can play. (TV) used to be this collective meditation where people could relax before bedtime – watch a sitcom, you laugh every 30 seconds and then go to bed. For us, we’re not really trying to lull anybody from dinner to bedtime. We’re trying to capture people who really want their attention held.”

You can stream the upcoming season of Transparent here. It’s free to anyone with Amazon Prime.