On the series premiere of the Amazon's new family dramedy, Jeffrey Tambor's Maura is unable to introduce herself to her three children.

By Karen Valby
September 26, 2014 at 07:01 PM EDT
Gregory Zabilski/Amazon
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Jim Croce’s wistful ballad of regrets and missed communications was the perfect backdrop for the premiere of Jill Soloway’s magnificent show, which is about a family’s former patriarch struggling to introduce herself as a woman—but really a person, instead of just a parent—to her floundering grown children. Los Angeles is its own character on the show, and rarely has a show so captured the yearnings and flavor of the city.

First, the children, who really are just that: There’s Ali (God, more of Gaby Hoffman in everything, please) who’s an artful mess. She’s sharp and funny and almost rubbery with her lack of responsibility. She doesn’t have a job or a hairbrush—but she does have an idea to spoof the seminal (and disturbing) children’s book Are You My Mother? with an Urban Outfitters checkout piece of winky ephemera called Are You My Soulmate? Though it’s not her soul, per se, that is instantly drawn to a deliciously jacked trainer in Griffith Park.

If Ali seems like she’s naturally the smartest of the kids, middle child Josh (Jay Duplass) strikes me as the rawest. A successful music guy with an off-puttingly cool house, we meet him in bed playing with the breasts of his stylish girlfriend/fairy/musical discovery. She’s part of a band called Glitterish—on this band name alone, I am sold on the show—which consists of a similarly Twiggy-like blonde and another tangential girl who plays the triangle. When Ali meets the girls, who are a little itchy on Sativa, she wonders if her hopeless brother should be keeping “juice boxes and string cheese” on hand. You know, “treats for the kids.”

Finally, there’s big sister Sarah (Amy Landecker, whose work you’ve admired in a million projects, though you probably can’t remember which ones exactly), who lives in a house fit for a Nancy Meyers movie and has a husband who forgets to say goodbye to her, the kids, and the nanny before leaving for work. When Sarah drops her kids off at their private school, she runs into a lesbian (Melora Hardin) from her past. When hot Tammy wonders if they should get together for a playdate, Sarah’s voice drops in vague disappointment: “Yeah, with the kids, great.”

The three kids are summoned unexpectedly to their father’s house in the hills. Ali thinks he’s getting engaged, a guess her brother rebuffs. “Dad’s a pussy hound,” he says with admiration. “Really, he’s a Marcy hound,” corrects Sarah, as the sibling catalogue the many Jewish Marcys from their divorced father’s past. If it’s not news of an engagement they’ve been gathered together for, they’re placing bets on cancer.

NEXT: Spoiler—it ain’t cancer

Jeffrey Tambor plays the Pfefferman patriarch, and a special award must go to the hair stylist who coiffed his limp long hair into a tiny ponytail. At first glimpse, he looks like an aging LA hippie with unusually moisturized skin and sad eyes. He’s affectionate with his children, if vaguely distracted and disinterested. As Sarah unpacks their takeout bags of barbecue, he compliments her on her thorough offering. “Put it on my tombstone,” says Sarah. “‘She always knew how much to order.'”

Over dinner, the Pfeffermans get sloppy with barbecue sauce, much to uptight Sarah’s dismay. Interrupting the kids’ bickering, Pop announces he has serious matters to discuss. There’s a big change afoot. The kids explode that it’s cancer, unwilling to cede him the floor. Finally, he spits out that he’s selling their family home, and that maybe Sarah would like it. Wouldn’t you know it, such a gift doesn’t sit well with his other two hungry kids. With dinner suddenly over, Ali says good night to her dad with a fresh check from him in her back pocket. He tries again to reach out to her, telling her that she’s the one who’s always seen him with the clearest eyes. “It’s probably because we share the depressive gene,” he says, lobbing a charge she rebuffs. “Boy, it’s so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see,” he says, with such loving sadness in his voice.

The kids leave. The clothes of their father come off… and on goes a caftan a woman can breathe in. At one point, Josh’s girlfriend wonders why his parents got divorced. Probably because his mother (played with great edge by Judith Light, never better in slightly lavender hair and classic retirement village culottes) saw the very thing Mort had for so long been desperate to hide.

So now Mom is living with her second husband, a gummy man with dementia and a diet of Ensure. At one point, Ali tries to communicate with the now wordless Ed, and he gives her a wobbly two thumbs up when she asks him how he’s doing. Good grief, life is sad and hard. As for Mort, he—she—is at the LGBT Center in full makeup and loose dress, sharing in a circle of transgender friends that she was unable to come out to jer children. Mort is a mask that Maura is tired of wearing. Bemoaning the aborted attempt, she says of her kids “They are so selfish. I don’t know how I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”

I imagine it’s rare that every parent of grown children isn’t struck by a similar horror. And there, I think, is the show’s great triumph. Yes, this is a series about a man coming out as a trans woman, to kids who are struggling themselves to transition into adulthood. That’s a pretty splashy hook on a very expertly shot surface. But really, it’s just about family, the moving mess of it. And what a mess, by the way.

By the end of the episode, Ali seeks out the trainer, thrilling to his spank and order to “move that big ass.” Josh ends the night of the family dinner at the feet of an older woman who’s very much not a member of Glitterish. And Sarah’s feelings for Tammy, her old college girlfriend, sets her bored, suburban heart hopelessly abuzz. She invites Tammy back to her dad’s house—because these kids are all basically still in high school!—and they start making out in his bedroom. Maura interrupts them—much to Sarah’s dismay at seeing her father in lipstick. At this point, the encounter must be a tragic relief for Maura.

I’m all in. And I love the piano over the opening credits to boot.

This half-hour drama by Jill Soloway follows the lives of the Pfefferman family, where nothing is as it seems.
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