It's rare for a TV show to arrive almost fully formed. Most series take time to find their feet, to discover their voice and establish their world. But Transparent, the trans-themed comedy-drama from Amazon Prime, won instant and universal critical acclaim when it dropped last year, with a holy grail score of 90+ on Metacritic.
Meanwhile Netflix's family drama Bloodline confidently introduced us into its own, fully-formed world in the Florida Keys, and even though critics had some issues with its pace of storytelling, the show brought all of its many threads together in time for an exhilarating run of four intense closing episodes.
Inviting the audience into the nucleus of a troubled family isn't all that these series had in common. Both argued the case that the streaming model of television gives writers more freedom than they might have on ABC or FOX, and both had important things to say about modern life. So, let's look at what Transparent and Bloodline will bring to the table in their second seasons.
The first thing you should know if you haven't already watched Transparent it's that it's not "gay interest". At all. The themes of this show are universal and you don't need any prior interest in LGBT or transgender rights to enjoy it. You just need a sense of humour.
To recap: Morton Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) is a Jewish man with three adult kids (adult in age, if not always attitude). At the age of sixty-something, long after having divorced his wife, he decides to come out as transgender and begin the transition to female, and one by one he shares the news with his kids, some of whom react better than others.
It's an incredibly funny piece of television. In one episode, younger daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) goes on a ketamine trip with her boyfriend, who promptly dumps her when she tries to get him to have sex with his male roommate. She then goes home and meets her Dad dressed as a woman for the first time, and in her high, super-enlightened state she thinks it's the most beautiful thing on Earth. But when she meets him sober the next day, the reality of the situation starts to hit her a little harder - witness the bathroom scene:
Series creator Jill Soloway has a transgender father, and the show is written from a place of complete understanding with a total lack of judgment, but it doesn't shy away from the fact that some people just don't get "the trans thing". One of the characters suggests Mort (now Maura) is dressing us a woman as a means of attention seeking, or perhaps because he has Alzheimer's. Of course!
But whilst the show has won over critics with ease - Tambor won the Emmy for his incredible performance - it's hard to gauge how much of an impact it's had on mainstream audiences, except to say that it's clearly not as popular as the likes of Orange is the New Black, the show Transparent is most comparable to.
Season 2 might fix that. One of the great things about how Transparent tells its stories is that there's no central character. Maura and the kids all have equal screen time, allowing us to delve into their own, utterly screwed up personal lives. Soloway recently teased further exploration of eldest daughter Sarah's (Amy Landecker) relationship with her college lover Tammy (Melora Hardin), for whom she abandoned her straight marriage, in season 2. The stories move fast in this show and the way Sarah threw away her marriage to Len basically a few days after reconnecting with her college lesbian fling almost fell jarring, so it's good to hear that we'll see more of the consequences of that decision.
As Tambor says, "Maura is more of the gateway figure for so many stories... [Transparent] is becoming more than just a story about a trans-parent or transitioning. It's about people seeking their freedom." The trans story is an important one to tell, but to connect with a wider audience, it can't be the only story this show tells. It also has to be a story of contemporary life and of the dynamics within a family.
In the face of competition from Amazon and Hulu, Netflix's huge original content drive continued this year with Bloodline, another dysfunctional family drama but one much lighter on laughs - and much heavier on blood. The way season 1 introduced and unravelled its murder mystery was pretty daring, giving us a whole bunch of clues early on but keeping a grip on key pieces of information, slowly teasing events of the past until it fell in live with the present - and put a stormcloud above the Rayburn family's future.
If you've not seen it already, here's a spoiler-free summary of the series: Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn) is the black sheep of his middle class family, who have a reputation in the Florida Keys for being thoroughly decent people. The circumstances of his return are unknown, but everybody seems convinced he can only bring trouble, and sure enough a flash-forward teases a murder before the first episode is out.
In many ways Bloodline is the antithesis of Transparent. It's a story about what happens when secrets are covered up and swept under the rug, as opposed to the consequences of coming out and being truthful with your loved ones. It's about how family isn't always loving; sometimes it's cruel. Sometimes a parent loves one child more than another, and that drives a wedge into the unit.
All of the cast - including Danny - are back for season 2, whilst new supporting players Evangeline (Andrea Riseborough) and Miami gangster Ozzy (John Leguizamo) will expand the show's central mystery whilst the adult Rayburn siblings deceive their mother Sally (Sissy Spacek) to keep their secret hidden. Basically, it's going to get darker - and season 1 was already black as hell. The goal for Bloodline is to convince the audiences that it's a thriller on a par with House of Cards, and to generate word of mouth buzz beyond what was achieved during its debut run, because everybody should be hooked on this show.
Both of these series are among the best on television. Or not on television. Here's hoping both can expand their audiences going into season 2.
Are you under the spell of Transparent? Thrilled by Bloodline? Leave a comment and share your thoughts about what season 2 could bring for both series.