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 , directed by
and the legacy of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe
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 —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.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?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 “TransparentTransparent