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On Transparent, A Family Unhappy In Its Own Way

The third season asks its characters: What happens after you’ve changed your life and you’re still not happy?


The first season of Transparent, released by Amazon in September 2014, wasted no time in announcing the tragicomedy’s knotty thematic terrain. Even before Mort Pffeferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a retired Jewish professor in L.A.’s moneyed Pacific Palisades, reveals herself to be a transgender woman named Maura; before we could watch her emotionally stunted adult children bicker over coleslaw; before a 13-year-old girl stands on a coffee table and brashly recites her weekly Torah portion—the artful opening credits, directed by trans artist Rhys Ernst, seemed sufficient to convey the show’s multitudes.

Crackling like an old VHS tape, the nostalgia-infused title sequence offered a simple juxtaposition, intercutting decades-old bar mitzvah videos with glittering images of drag queens (The footage was taken from the revolutionary 1968 documentary The Queen). In season two, those clips were joined by new footage: women embracing, lesbians marching in political rallies, three women gazing at the Statue of Liberty as their ship approaches New York. The inclusion signaled the show’s expanded historical sweep, with a season-long narrative that reached back to second-wave feminist history and the legacy of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe. For season three, the title sequence is once again altered, adding footage of black performers, post-war suburbia, and stained-glass synagogue windows to the melancholy montage. There are hints here of the show’s new preoccupations, if you know where to look.

“When one person in a family transitions, everyone transitions,” Shelly (Judith Light), Maura’s ex-wife, says early in the season, while testing out her autobiographical one-woman show (Title: “To Shel and Back”). The line is more than a little self-involved, but it’s not exactly wrong—the discovery that the characters are both astonishingly self-involved and impossible to disavow is a defining element of the show. Transparent’s central conceit is that Maura’s transition—and the suppressed family secrets it unearthed—has pushed all three Pfefferman siblings to poke at their identities and question the ways they have understood themselves.

Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), the youngest, began the series as a familiar figure of arrested development; unemployed and unmoored, a Lena Dunham-lite millennial cliche scrambling for money and meaning. But the vision-prone character, whose relationship to reality can be porous at times, has somehow grown into the most mature Pfefferman, a budding academic who is genuinely passionately about her studies even as she’s mired in an ill-advised relationship with her graduate adviser, gender-studies star Leslie Mackinaw (Cherry Jones). For Ali, personal growth has occurred alongside a sexual evolution: Once an insecure straight girl in search of men to treat her as a sexual object, she’s now a staunch lesbian. (“I can’t have real emotional intimacy with someone who hasn’t suffered under patriarchy,” Ali announced last season, with the over-earnest zeal of the newly converted.) Her elder sister, Sarah, played by Amy Landecker in a bristly performance that’s so perfectly calibrated its brilliance is easy to overlook, has also embraced queer sexuality. After divorcing her husband, then swiftly divorcing her new wife, and then discovering the joys of BDSM, Sarah now proudly identifies as bisexual—while living platonically with her ex-husband and co-parenting their kids.

If Transparent was guided by irony rather than empathy, the lone heterosexual cisgender man in the Pfefferman family would be the most unlikeable member, the character most corroded by entitlement and privilege. Josh (Jay Duplass), a rich music executive, might look like a person who coasts through life, and in some important ways, he is. But he is also Transparent’s most tragic character, and not only because Duplass has the sad eyes of an abandoned puppy. After breaking up last year with his fiancé, the wonderful Rabbi Raquel Fein played by the equally wonderful Kathryn Hahn, the new season finds Josh floating through life as though tranquilized. Josh, who had a long-term affair with his babysitter while he was a teenage boy, may be the Pfefferman offspring most damaged by his parent’s distracted neglect, harmed by masculine gender norms that prevented him from acknowledging his abuse as anything but “awesome.”

After two years as stable helpmeet, Raquel is finally given a chance to act out. As the Rabbi tries to process a crisis of faith and lingering depression, Soloway allows Hahn—the writer’s muse, cast to brilliant effect as a bursting neurotic in her promising new Amazon series I Love Dick—to behave enraged and unhinged, to move beyond the pose of righteous forbearance she held in prior seasons. If it was once possible to wonder what this empathetic voice of reason was doing with the self-indulgent Pfeffermans, the season makes clear that part of Raquel deeply craves this family’s brand of crazy.

With its second season, creator Jill Soloway expanded the hermetic world that Transparent sketches with such aching precision, by adding an extra layer to the mix: a series of flashbacks to 1933 Berlin, placing the Pfefferman ancestors at the center of Weimar Germany’s glamorous scene of gender-bending sexual experimentation, a freewheeling society on the brink of annihilation. Transparent became more explicitly mission-driven, part of a restorative project by Soloway to inscribe queer history onto American Jewish historical memory. And yet the Berlin flashbacks, featuring transgender it girl Hari Nef as the transexual sibling of Maura’s mother, had an uncanny quality that was difficult to shake. Nef spoke with the flat vowels of a California teen, while her mother, played by the typically excellent Michaela Watkins, employed a Borscht Belt accent, speaking with a Yiddish inflection imported from a community production of Fiddler on the Roof. The scenes veered from enigmatic fever dream to awkward stage play without explanation. I eventually came around to the Berlin narrative, but only after deciding to view the flashbacks as less historical realism than imagined memory, a way for Aly to commemorate her queer Jewish ancestors by feeling her way into their trauma.

Season three of Transparent is a retreat from the baroque sprawl of the Nazi-haunted second season, and it may be an even better season of television—deeper, more ragged, more attuned to characters’ emotional terrain. Not much changes dramatically; the season is structured around Passover, and the holiday offers an underlying metaphor for the show’s narrative stasis right now. The first two seasons showed Maura breaking free from her self-inflicted prison and deciding to live her truth. But what happens after you’ve changed your life and you’re still not happy? When your pain is still as wide and deep as an ocean? What do you do when you’ve liberated yourself but are still waiting for the sea in front of you to part so you can pass through?

In the first scene of the season, we don’t see any Pfeffermans at all—only Rabbi Raquel, practicing a sermon in front an empty congregation, standing in running shorts before a sea of bare chairs. “Thoughts on Passover,” she begins, and continues in an Amy Jellicoe-style voiceover as she wanders through a forest. “You listen for the voice of the divine, but you hear nothing. So you listen closer. What is that? Is it nothing?” Raquel says, as the camera trains its eye on tranquil green wilderness. “No, it is stillness.” To the attuned ear there is an echo here of the thin sound of silence with which God speaks to Elijah during his own crisis of faith: the still small voice” of the divine. Emmy speeches about “toppling the patriarchy” aside, Transparent operates largely in a minor key, finding power in quiet images: neatly painted fingernails, a young woman’s sea-green hair, the bumps on a turtle’s shell. Transparent can be bold and brazen and transgressive; it’s when Soloway turns her gaze towards stillness, though, that she finds transcendence.