Just as Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman transitions from a man to a woman in the first season of Transparent, Amazon is undergoing a transformation from an “add to cart” e-commerce site to a streaming service competing with the likes of Netflix. While the wildly acclaimed Transparent has put them on the map — it’s likely to be a contender for Best Comedy as well as Best Actor for Jeffrey Tambor at next year’s awards shows — Amazon needs a second hit to solidify its status as a force to be reckoned with. So if Transparent is Amazon’s House of Cards, what will its Orange Is the New Black be? It’s not likely to be Alpha House, which releases its second season on Oct. 24. As witty as Garry Trudeau’s congressional satire is, it couldn’t cut through the noise made by higher-profile political shows like Scandal, Veep and, yes, House of Cards during its first go-round, and a sophomore surge seems like a longshot. Some of the pilots Amazon has ordered to series (after putting them online for viewer feedback) are creatively promising, but none seems posed for breakout status. Take Red Oaks, David Gordon Green and Steven Soderbergh’s ’80s-set coming-of-age satire. If The Goldbergs can’t strike ratings gold with a similar premise on ABC, Red Oaks probably won’t grow into anything more than a niche success either. So what can Amazon learn from the success of Transparent that can serve as a blueprint for the future? Here are a few suggestions.
Cater to more underserved populations. Transparent connected with the trans-gender community and beyond, and the strong early ratings for ABC’s diverse new slate (How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, Cristela) indicates viewers are getting tired of seeing the same old, white faces. Ang Lee was slated to direct the pilot for FX’s laughable Tyrant before he wisely dropped out, but maybe he’d be game for a half-hour follow-up to his 1993 film The Wedding Banquet, following the interracial same-sex couple 20 years later, in the era of marital equality? The appeal of such a series seems, in a word, transparent.
Dig up more Six Feet Under veterans. Transparent creator Jill Soloway cut her TV-writerly teeth on HBO’s groundbreaking funeral-home drama, and some of that show’s scribes could be ripe to conceive new shows. Take playwright Craig Wright, who reteamed with star Peter Krause on ABC’s underrated Dirty Sexy Money, or Scott Buck, who reunited with Michael C. Hall on Dexter. After Krause finishes his run on NBC’s Parenthood soon and Hall’s limited engagement as a trans-rocker in Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch ends, they could join forces with Wright or Buck again.
Don’t be afraid to be specific. By definition, broadcasters have to be broad — as progressive as Modern Family is, it still features a traditional nuclear clan along with a gay couple with kids and a May-December blended romance. Transparent proved that narrowcasting can resonate, too. And sometimes the more specific you get, the more universal you turn out to be. Remember when NBC execs feared Seinfeld was “too Jewish”? Jerry and the gang couldn’t have existed anywhere but the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the Pfeffermans couldn’t live outside the Silverlake/Echo Park section of L.A. Find more neighborhoods, more people with stories that haven’t been told. Think Portlandia, only weirder.