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Judith Light and Jeffrey Tambor in "Transparent"/ Courtesy Amazon Studios

Sex, lies, and neurosis

The triumphant return of “Transparent”

By Brigit Katz on December 10, 2015

In winter of last year, Amazon’s Transparent burst onto our screens as a prescient herald of the cultural zeitgeist. Jill Soloway’s delicate telling of a middle-age man who comes out as transgender was one of the first robust portrayals of a trans person on television, and the show scored several major awards and heaps of critical adoration. The hype was warranted. With equal parts compassion and humor, Transparent chronicled Mort Pfefferman’s emergence as Maura and “Moppa”—the term of endearment bestowed upon her by her three adult children, Sarah, Alli, and Josh.

Transparent’s second season begins with a lesbian wedding. Sarah (Amy Landecker) is marrying her girlfriend Tammy, and the Pfefferman mishpocheh are tasked with assembling for photographs—an undertaking of epic proportions, as anyone who has belonged to a Jewish bridal party will know. The Pfeffermans shout at one another, dash after errant family members, primp, preen, complain about the heat, complain about each other, complain about the photographer. Order is finally achieved, and just as quickly lost when the photographer in question refers to Maura as “Sir.” After the family disperses in a huff, Tammy’s (gentile) relatives are gathered together and photographed within 30 seconds.

It’s a very funny and very apt opening sequence for Transparent’s dazzling second season. The Pfeffermans are not very good at special occasions, and just about every gathering devolves into shouting, crying, and remarkable displays of self-involvement. The status quo of Pfefferman dysfunction had already been established last season, but the show’s inaugural episodes were preoccupied with Maura’s shattering life change and the ripple effect it had upon her loved ones. Now that she has surpassed the hump of coming out, Maura’s directionless children and wackadoodle ex-wife are given a chance to step more firmly into the foreground, in all their hilarity and unhappiness. 

Carrie Brownstein and Gaby Hoffman in "Transparent"/Courtesy Amazon Studios
Carrie Brownstein and Gaby Hoffman in “Transparent”/Courtesy Amazon Studios

Season one of Transparent treated Maura’s transition with great gentleness and little spectacle, but her story feels all the more human when juxtaposed against her family’s successes and screw-ups. Traversing the gender divide is not, after all, the only crisis of identity that can take over a person’s life. And when it comes to the Pfeffermans, crises abound. This time around, Maura and her ex-wife Shelly are living together, finding an unhealthy sort of comfort in their familiarity. Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) realizes that she is a lesbian, starts dating her best friend, and then promptly becomes enamored with a feminist academic. Sarah plunges into a funk after her relationship with Tammy goes awry. Joshua (Jay Duplass) tries to connect with the Christian-raised son he didn’t know he had, while starting a new family with the lovely Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). I won’t divulge how things go wrong, but suffice it to say that one mid-season episode ends with a delirious Josh devouring packages of deli meat in a grocery store.

To some degree, Maura’s gender change has thrown the family into disorder, and there is a very touching exchange in the season’s last episode about the profound sense of loss that family members experience when a loved one transitions. But for the most part, the Pfefferman brood are victims of their own narcissistic angst. In one scene, Sarah tries to right wrongs with Tammy on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. “You get forgiveness and absolve yourself,” she explains, oblivious of Tammy’s unwillingness to make nice. Then, after one second too long: “Or you get absolved.”

Soloway’s brilliance lies in winking at her characters’ absurdities while rendering them funny enough to be likable, tender enough to be sympathetic This is especially true of Maura, who is no paragon of virtue, but whose story remains deeply affecting. Played beautifully—once again—by Jeffrey Tambor, Maura is dogged by her past as a man, which won’t stop colliding with her new identity as a woman. Even a group of radical lesbians lectures her about male privilege, forcing her to advocate for her womanhood in the most liberal of settings.

In another scene, Maura dances on her own in a nightclub, swaying silently in front of a mirror as the closing refrain of Sia’s “Chandelier” booms overhead: “I’m just holding on for tonight, on for tonight, on for tonight.” The loneliness of it all—of not being young or glamorous, of not looking typically feminine—is striking.  And Maura is luckier than many. “We don’t all have your family,” her friend Davina says. “We don’t all have your money. I’m a 53 year old, ex-prostitute, HIV-positive woman with a dick.”

Kathryn Hahn and Jay Duplass in "Transparent"/Courtesy Amazon Studios
Kathryn Hahn and Jay Duplass in “Transparent”/Courtesy Amazon Studios

These meditations on the tangles of the trans experience, and of life in general, would have been sufficiently profound. But Transparent pushes further, questioning the extent to which feelings of disconnection are self-propagating. Flashbacks to 1930s Berlin are woven throughout the season, twisting us back in time to the teenage years of Maura’s mother, Rose, and Rose’s brother Gershom—who was trans.  Oblivious to her familial history, Maura assumes that her elderly mother will be destroyed by her transition, and aggressively avoids visiting her. So many of the Pfeffermans’ anxieties are rooted in their secrets and silences, in their belief that their pain is singular.

And yet, in spite of it all, there is family. Some of the show’s best, most aesthetically beautiful moments hone in on the little moments of intimacy between the Pfeffermans, as they horse around in a pool, eat bagels, go to the beach, crack jokes about bidets, cuddle together in bed. Maura and her family are all on a desperate quest to find themselves, and on the way, they find each other.


“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway’s new love sprang from a storyline

The change in how Hollywood portrays trans people

Pioneering transgender actress Holly Woodlawn dies at 69