Sep 30, 2014 · 4 minutes

Making great television is hard.

It doesn't matter whether it's produced by a longtime incumbent with decades of experience like HBO, or a tech company like Netflix venturing from the safe solace of zeroes and ones into the much less predictable realm of characters and story. Major networks order over a dozen pilots each year, less than half of which are picked up. This year alone, at least 40 shows are slated to be cancelled.

So it's little wonder that tech companies have struggled to produce original programming that consistently attracts popular and critical acclaim. Netflix is the clear leader here, with "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black" bringing in big audiences and Emmy nominations, if not always Emmy wins. And its latest offering, the animated adult animation show "BoJack Horseman" starring Will Arnett and Amy Sedaris, is probably the best thing on "television" you aren't watching.

But its tech company rivals in the online television game, Hulu and Amazon, have had much less success. Neither company scored a single nomination at this year's Emmys and none of their original series have become household names. (Hulu's "The Hotwives of Orlando" had its moments, if only because it's impossible to hate anything involving Kristin Schaal). Amazon showed some early promise with "Betas," a perfectly likable if not wildly profound depiction of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. But now with HBO's much slicker "Silicon Valley" renewed for a second season, there are even fewer reasons for "Betas" to exist. Amazon announced it would not renew the series for a second season.

But over the weekend, a show debuted that's not only the best television show ever produced by Amazon -- It's the best show ever produced by a tech company.

"Transparent" is a brilliantly-acted, compassionately-written, and expertly-shot five hours of television that, like "House of Cards," has raised the bar for what a show produced by a web platform can be.

It tells the story of Mort / Maura Pfefferman ("Arrested Development"'s Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as a transgender woman to his three adult children, Sarah, Ali, and Josh, played by "A Serious Man"'s Amy Landecker, "Uncle Buck"'s Gaby Hoffmann, and "The Puffy Chair" director Jay Duplass. And while Maura is dealing with the most substantial life change, each character is faced with sexual and emotional crises. Sarah has left her husband for a married woman. Ali is adrift both professionally and personally, taking to sexual and pharmaceutical experimentation in an effort to locate her identity deep into adulthood. And record producer Josh, accustomed to a life of reckless irresponsibility, is desperate for a reason to settle down, and yet terrified of what that might mean.

While audiences may not directly identify with the specific circumstances of each character's dilemma, the actors convey such a powerful sense of vulnerability that it's impossible not to feel deeply for their struggles. Every character's life is a bit of a mess, but this isn't an exercise in Schadenfreude. While the fractured family dynamic is distinctly reminiscent of Noah Baumbach's films, there the audience's instinct is to stare in horror as at the domestic equivalent of a car crash (the magnificent "Frances Ha" notwithstanding). On "Transprency," however, the characters are working too hard to find themselves for us to write them off as mere "fuck-ups," regularly engaging in acts of emotional bravery even as whatever these characters are chasing -- Happiness? Fulfillment? Self-possession? -- never seems any closer to materializing.

At the center of it all is Tambor's amazing performance as Maura. In flashbacks and other scenes where Maura is still "Mort," we see a man painfully uncomfortable in his own skin. It's a feeling we've all felt from time to time, even if the cause of this discomfort has nothing to do with gender. It's a testament to Tambor's performance that when Maura does come out, she does not feel like a different person than Mort, just a more self-confident version of the same identity. In an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward, show creator Jill Soloway calls it "a family inheritance of a woman being born. They get this new mother from their father’s female self." Indeed whatever illusions the children had of their father has been replaced by a woman who is warm, loving, and fiercely protective of her family. How can anyone argue with that?

Some of the most critically-acclaimed shows of the past five years are populated by characters capable of horrifying cruelty -- "Breaking Bad," "House of Cards," "Game of Thrones," and "Mad Men." Meanwhile, the shows that do telegraph the kind of heart, compassion, and kindness of "Transparent" generally lack the depth to justify these less sexy emotions, like "Parenthood" or "Modern Family" (a perfectly funny show, but not high art).

But with "Transparent," Amazon has not only lent legitimacy to its own original programming arm -- a not-insignificant development as its Prime Instant service looks to steal viewers away from Netflix. Its lent legitimacy to the notion that in 2014 you don't need shocking violence, murderous anti-heroes, or period-piece trappings to achieve television greatness. Despite the show's progressive sexual politics, "Transparent" is downright old-fashioned.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]