EW Staff
September 12, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”My ears are on fire!” Jeffrey Tambor says, massaging the lobe where he just pulled off a clip-on between takes. The Arrested Development star — who plays Maura, the transgender head of the Pfefferman family and the lead of the new Amazon comedy Transparent — is shooting a scene at a cross-dressing retreat in Malibu where Tambor’s character and a friend, Marcy (Bradley Whitford), are preparing to head out to a dance. Whitford, in a body-hugging dress and cardigan, releases a string of curses about the pain of wearing heels that would make a long-haul trucker blush. ”This mascara is too heavy,” he says, blinking rapidly. ”There are no accidents!” answers Tambor. More than 50 extras in various stages of sequins, Lycra, and obnoxious florals are waiting to welcome Maura and Marcy to what will turn out to be an epic party. Amy Landecker, who plays Maura’s daughter Sarah, hangs around watching Tambor and Whitford nuance their way through a scene, swaying drunkenly and vamping like Italian screen sirens. People don’t seem to want to leave, because it feels like something special is happening here.

And it is. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, Transparent follows Maura (formerly known as Mort)as she comes out as transgender to her ex-wife, Shelley (Judith Light), and kids (Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffmann). Whitford plays Marcy, whom we first meet as Marc. Although Orange Is the New Black‘s Laverne Cox has brought transgender issues to the forefront, no series has tackled it as a main plotline — until now. ”There really has never been a show like this, the way Will & Grace kind of changed the world for gay people,” says Jill Soloway, the show’s creator. ”We’re just beginning to tell a story about gender in this country. And we’re going to for sure make some mistakes. But we’re excited about starting the conversation.”

It’s one that’s close to Soloway’s heart: Three years ago her father came out as transgender. A veteran of meditatively quirky sagas like Six Feet Under and United States of Tara, Soloway had been developing a new family story for years, and this revelation brought it all together. ”I’d seen a version of this show in my head, but this particular aspect of it came to me out of the real-life situation,” she says. ”It’s kind of a docudrama about a much funnier, comedically and dramatically idealized version of my family.” Initially she wanted to use Maura’s announcement to her children as the jumping-off point of the pilot, but Amazon head of comedy Joe Lewis sold her on the slow burn. ”It’s sort of vital that it isn’t about the finding out,” she says. Transparent finds humor in the mundane drama of daily life rather than in shtick. Putting all of Maura’s cards on the table from the get-go would lose the exploratory moments of identity revealed as Maura comes out to each of her children — who, throughout the series, struggle with gender and sexuality issues of their own.

”To have the combination of something that’s sexy and funny and also part of a civil rights movement,” says Landecker, ”it’s pretty outstanding.” And the show takes its responsibility seriously. Twenty-five members of the cast and crew are transgender, and meetings start with an update from transgender consultants Zackary and Rhys — who also teach on-set classes — on what’s new in the trans community. Everybody is learning together: Something as basic as navigating pronouns is hard, and the team decided not to include photos of Mort in publicity materials, as it was deemed disrespectful to Maura’s journey. ”Having been on a show that was about political issues, I can tell you the one thing you never want to do is serve a heaping helping of civic vegetables, because no one wants to eat them,” says Whitford. ”The way that Jill weaves sensitivity and humor is fascinating.”

While the show takes place in the present day, it lends equal time to Maura’s backstory. We get glimpses of a pre-transition Maura as Mort, testing the waters as she gets to know herself. Tambor himself got to experience the joy and apprehension on a personal level when Zackary, Rhys, and Soloway took him to a trans club in the Valley the first time he was in costume as Maura. ”Going down the elevator, I was just shaking like a leaf. And when we were going to go to the valet to get our car, no one looked at me,” Tambor says. ”There’s an adage in acting that I love: You’re stuck with the character, and the character is stuck with you. Maura and I have met each other in our late 60s/early 70s, and we like each other.”

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