Monday, 27 July 2015

Not to be missed. NOT to be missed. AND there's two...

It sometimes shames me to think how much mediocre TV I’ve sat through. So it’s comforting to be able to report on not one, but two great series.

Both are available from Amazon, both indeed made by Amazon.

The first is Transparent. Before you get carried away with the thought that it’s somehow to do with limpid sight, with viewing clearly through to the foundations of things, to no longer seeing through a glass darkly, let me point out that it’s a neat play on words, and that the title could be pronounced trans-parent, with “parent” in the sense of father or mother.

Indeed, its central character (played with brilliant contained neurosis and deadpan sensitivity by Jeffrey Tambor) decides in his sixties that he’s had enough of pretending to be a man. He comes out as trans, preferring to wear women’s clothing in public, and behaving in all respects as a woman. His daughters, indeed, give him the nickname “Moppa”, a cross between Momma and Poppa.

For he has daughters. And a son. But the series is not merely concerned with the impact of their Moppa’s coming out on their lives. Amy Landecker is excellent as the eldest, Sarah, who has herself opted for lesbianism (or has she? imagine the possibilities for ambivalence), whereas the youngest, Ali (Gaby Hofmann – remember the little girl in Field of Dreams? – well as an adult she portrays, with shocking verve, hungry longing, tormented uncertainty, and a capacity for cruelty flowing from the other two) has developed such an appetite for rough sex that she seems unable ever to find any at all.

The boy, Josh (again a fine performance, by Jay Duplass), has the animal magnetism that gives him no difficulty in attracting any woman he sets his mind on, while love remains generally unattainable to him, until he falls for his female rabbi.

Did I mention that the family is Jewish so we get an entertaining subplot of life in that community in LA?

Jeffrey Tambor and Alexandra Billings in Transparent
There are plenty of other supporting characters, and all played well by a highly talented cast. I have to make a special mention of Alexandra Billings, the first trans actor to play a trans character on screen (but not in this series), who is superb. There isn’t a poor performance, or a role without redeeming features, or without terrible faults requiring redemption, in a plot that constantly engages, intrigues and entertains.

Ten episodes in the first season, all well worth watching.

Almost as good, in a completely different genre, is Mozart in the Jungle. Gael García Bernal (remember the sultry young priest in El Crimen del Padre Amaro? He’s as sultry as ever, if a little older) is Rodrigo, the international celebrity, just appointed conductor in residence by the fictional New York Symphony orchestra. It needs his star quality to turn round the orchestra’s rather shaky financial performance, though the man he displaces doesn’t entirely agree (Malcolm McDowell – remember If? He’s as talented as ever but a lot older).

Lora Kirke in Mozart in the Jungle
working for a breakthrough with the oboe
The other main character is played by Lola Kirke as the aspiring oboe player who’s perhaps not quite up to the demands of a top orchestra yet, a role which she gives us with thoroughly believable sensitivity and angst. Saffron Burrows combines powerful presence with great humour and poignancy, as a top cellist who’s beginning to suffer from problems in her hands and is fighting them with drugs, while Debra Monk is a glorious monster as the lead oboist who is prepared, for an exorbitant fee, to teach Kirke even though she has no faith in her.

What makes the series so good, like Transparent, is that all the characters are interesting and usually attractive. To be fair, Mozart in the Jungle takes an easier route, since it makes them more sympathetic, for more of the time. In Transparent characters are occasionally so utterly self-centred as to be quite repellent, calling on all the skills of the writers to redeem them. In Mozart in the Jungle, the moments of unpleasant behaviour are shorter, so it’s perhaps a little too easy to like everyone. Still, they are likeable, as well as believable and often funny. 

And Mozart in the Jungle has one other notable ingredient: the music. I
t’s great. One of my favourite scenes is the orchestra rehearsing on a piece of waste land, wired off with a padlocked gate and a sign warning that trespassing will be prosecuted – and playing an excellent choice of music for that environment.

Gael García Bernal rehearsing the orchestra al fresco
As for the season finale, it alone makes it worth watching the other nine episodes, even if they weren’t fun enough in their own right.

Both series have been renewed for a second season.


Vanessa said...

Right - I'm going to try Transparent now then... here's hoping it's good as I'm looking for something to watch :)

David Beeson said...

Here's hoping you do. I found it surprisingly, unusually engaging.