This is how Amazon developed its first great TV series

Time to binge.
Time to binge.
Image: Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
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When Jill Soloway was meeting with networks last year to pitch her show Transparent, Amazon was able to offer her something that HBO, FX, Showtime and the others could not: the promise of an expedited development and production schedule, instead of the usual year-long process at most networks, after which the show might still never see the light of day.

Indeed, “it was about two months after my first meeting with them that they greenlit it, and a month or so after that, we were shooting. I think I met them in May and we were shooting in August,” a still-stunned Soloway told Quartz. “That never happens!”

Now, Soloway has repaid the favor by giving Amazon something that none of the company’s other original series has been able to deliver: its first great show. Transparent, which debuts Sept. 26 for Amazon Prime customers, is Amazon’s answer to Netflix’s Orange is the New Black: a critically-acclaimed signature series for the fledgling streaming network, which is unlike anything else on TV and puts Amazon squarely on the map as a true destination for quality television.

Transparent follows a transgender patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) who has spent her life as Mort, but reveals to her three kids that she is in fact Maura and is finally embracing her true identity. The innovative pilot episode, which aired on Amazon last spring, earned early raves. Now, subsequent episodes—the entire 10-episode first season will be released at once—prove its stellar debut was no fluke. Tambor is giving the best performance of his career, which is no small feat considering his peerless work on The Larry Sanders Show as Hank Kingsley (“Hey now!”) and Arrested Development as George Bluth Sr. As the rapturous reviews pile up, Soloway and Tambor spoke with Quartz about how Transparent was developed for Amazon.

“We have this absolutely unprecedented amount of creative freedom. So Amazon to me wasn’t necessarily like a TV network, it was a really vital and vibrant distribution system that would be able to get the stuff to the people quickly,” said Soloway, who was a writer and co-executive producer on Six Feet Under. “It feels more like I got to make a five-hour movie that already had distribution in place than it did like anything I would ever do for CBS that’s an episode to episode deal. There was none of that [network] interference: these stop signs that you constantly have to deal with, that really interrupt your flow and your connection to your inspiration, in any kind of TV. This is nothing like TV! It’s not TV, it’s not HBO, it’s Amazon!”

Tambor, too, had no qualms about going to work for what is in essence a retail company. “You just go where the content is,” said Tambor. “Acting is acting is acting. You can usually tell as an actor what’s going on and if there’s friction or something like that. What I get a sense of, is that we have a very safe place to create, we have a bunch of fans at Amazon who have been saying, ‘Go out and play. We get you. We support you. Go!’ And that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

So far, Amazon hasn’t asked Soloway to integrate any of the company’s products into her show. “Wait, you didn’t purchase barbeque ribs to order while you were watching, and clicking on the sauce on Dad’s face? Because in some cities they tested it, that if you click on the sauce, and then ribs will come to your house, in a drone. You didn’t get that?” she quipped (yes, she’s joking). “They could do that. ‘Do you like Maura’s caftan? Buy it!’”

Chimed in Tambor, “They could! I could actually go out of character…” he said, then switching to his Hank Kingsley announcer voice. “And by the way, this caftan, just now, for the next hour…” Added Soloway, “We’re really doing a dramatic QVC!”

Kidding aside, the only thing Soloway seems unsure of about her new home is Amazon’s sudden Netflix-style approach to releasing all of a season’s episodes at once, which it had previously resisted until discovering its customers actually preferred to binge-watch. “That was Amazon’s decision,” said Soloway. “In some ways, I was excited because it makes us like House of Cards or Orange, and I’m happy to be compared to shows like that. But I think as a showrunner, I have to get over the idea that there’s not going to be a, ‘And then next Friday, they’ll see the next piece!’ That’s different.”

Tambor, however, is more on board with binge-watching. “I can’t do 10 … but I can’t just watch one. It sounds like the Lay’s Potato Chip thing. But I can do two. I can do three,” he said. “It’s nice to know that it’s there or I can pick it up at another time. I think the novelistic approach, actually, I am aware of that in my acting. I know that the arcs are larger. And that’s very freeing to me.”

As she prepares to send all 10 episodes out into the world, Soloway hopes that Amazon viewers embrace Transparent as warmly as critics have. But no matter what happens, she couldn’t be happier about having thrown her lot in with Amazon. “I think it was meant to be this show, at this time, at this network, about this subject matter,” she said. “I just don’t think it could have worked elsewhere.”