Transparent, yet another perfect US dramedy.

Transparent.

Transparent.

Transparent sounds for all the world like one of those punchlines from an early Simpsons episode, one of the ones when, God be with the days, they were still funny. A California family have to deal with the emotional havoc caused when the family patriarch comes out and decides to live out the autumn of his years as the woman he’s always known he really was.

Written, directed and mostly starring women, all it needed was to be set in a hippy commune at the Joshua Tree run by a latter day Janis Joplin figure, played of course by Holly Hunter, who takes under her wing the emotionally lost stray waif played by the blondie one from Girls.

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Jeffrey Tambor, right.

When the show’s creator and showrunner Jill Solloway gave an interview in the New Yorker with Ariel Levy here, and she mentioned her cameo as a gender studies professor in one of the episodes, she seemed to be discussing those kind of views with fervour rather than the hint of irony one might have been hoping for.

Happily, Transparent is nothing like that. It’s about a completely normal family, that is to say a gloriously dysfunctional one, who just happen to be financially comfortable and fantastically Jewish – it makes Curb Your Enthusiasm look positively preppy.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

The three grown up children are all apparently successful if secretly rudderless and quietly lost. So when their father decides to come out in episode one, yes that emotional turmoil is to some degree explained. But more to the point, it’s yet another complication that they all have to deal with.

What makes Transparent so good, and it really is very, very good indeed, is that like Girls and Louie before it, it is first and foremost a drama, out of which the comedy evolves.

With a sitcom, even ones as sophisticated as Curb Your Enthusiasm or the late great Larry Sanders Show, their primary, indeed their sole duty is to make you laugh. But a comedy drama has to involve you emotionally, so that the laughter that arises from the mess the characters make of their lives is tinged with sadness and recognition.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, those crazy Girls.

Of course you have to care about the characters in your sitcom for the jokes to have their full effect. But that’s not the same thing as being moved by them.

What makes Transparent so powerful is the forceful way that it engages you emotionally in the lives of its protagonists. So that by the time you get to the finale of season one, you’re left an emotional wreck after the carnage they wreak upon one another, in a way that only families can.

The genuinely great and now late Gary Shandling.

The genuinely great and now late Garry Shandling.

The writing, acting and production are almost painfully spot on, and the series glides confidently from the present day to the recent past and back again giving the whole family portrait an added poignancy.

If you were wondering what to do with your evenings, now that you’ve got through seasons one and two of Girls, look no further.

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5 Best Albums of 2011.

5. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey

Justly lauded when it was released in February, Harvey’s eighth studio album landed her a second Mercury Prize after Stories from the City, Stories From The Sea in 2000. Ostensibly, Let England Shake delves into the psychic scars left in the aftermath of the First World War. But for all the heartfelt angst of her lyrics, it is as ever the bewitching drive of her music that once again proves so beguiling. There’s an eerie menace to her sound that’s pleasurably threatening and draws you inexorably in. And despite making probably her most accessible album to date, she remains gloriously unconventional.

4. Diamond Mine – King Creosote and Jon Hopkins

Occasional collaborators and fellow Scots Meursault describe the songs they produce as “epic lo-fi”. That describes perfectly the music that Kenny Anderson makes under the moniker King Creosote. And when he teamed up with indietronica producer Jon Hopkins for Diamond Mine, he was finally able to enjoy some belated recognition when they were nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize. Incredibly, this is (roughly) his fortieth album. And he’s still (apparently) the right side of forty. Just seven tracks in all, but each one is exquisitely crafted and impeccably delivered. Track 5, Bubble, has the sort of heart-breaking melody not heard in the Scottish Highlands since Belle And Sebastian’s haunting I Fought In A War.

3. The Harrow And The Harvest – Gillian Welch

Welch and her partner, guitarist David Rawlings made their debut in 1996 with Revival, produced by T-Bone Burnett. But it was when she performed with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris on the Burnett produced soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou that her career took off. And a year later in 2001 she and Rawlings followed that up by releasing  Time, The Revelator. This is their fifth album, and is probably their best. By some curious alchemy, the songs they produce succeed in sounding at once timeless yet powerfully contemporary. Delicate melodies cast in Appalachian granite, track 2, Dark Turn Of Mind is a worthy successor to Time’s impossibly mellifluous Dear Someone.

2. The Less You Know, The Better – DJ Shadow

Every time we greet something new with schoolgirl excitement, we have an irresistible urge to over-compensate by sneering at it ever after. Thus it is that after greeting DJ Shadow’s 1996 debut Entroducing… with unbridled enthusiasm, everyone’s gone out of their way to ignore the three he’s made subsequently. As I wrote in my earlier review here of this his fourth album, one day, a lot of people will one day feel very foolish for having missed this first time around.

1. Father, Son, Holy Ghost – Girls

Compiling these end of year lists is invariably a process of reluctant elimination. So that by the time you’ve narrowed it down to your best five albums, the five you end up with are all equally wonderful. Not so this year. This year’s best album was unusually easy to name. As I wrote in my earlier review here, the second album from Christopher Owens’ band Girls is a serious album. Monumental yet intimate, and ranging musically across three or four decades, it’s an album that’ll be celebrated and returned to for decades. Enjoy.

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