EDITOR’S NOTE: Spoiler alert: plot points of seasons one and two of Transparent ahead.
“Not good for the Jews,” said my partner, turning away from the first episode of the new season of Transparent before the title sequence even rolled. She was reacting to the scene that precedes the opening credits—presented in one four-minute-long, fixed, mid-range shot—that shows the fractious Pfeffermans gathering for a pre-nuptial family photo. Still living up to their patronymic—it’s Yiddish (and German) for “peppery ones”—they fuss, bicker, and snipe, tossing in Yiddish words, Jewish references, and just enough sarcasm to make you wonder how much they really mean what they’re saying. With great economy, the scene reacquaints viewers with the knotty plotlines, twisted characters, and thornily Jewy tone that we’d left behind more than a year ago, when Jill Soloway’s Amazon blockbuster debuted, and then went on to win five Emmy Awards. The second season is even better: more expansive, textured, and daring; more emotional and political.
The oldest Pfefferman sibling, Sarah (Amy Landecker), is about to wed Tammy Cashman (Melora Hardin), an old college fling who swept back into Sarah’s life in season one and whisked her away from a stale straight marriage. As the group arranges itself for the portrait, they squabble like noisy geese (an actual gaggle of which figures into later episodes). Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), the titular parent who ignited the action in season one when she came out as trans at age 70, frets about her hair, shoes, and the tilt of her head, mostly oblivious to everyone else’s efforts to gather others into the picture. Tammy summons her teenage ex-stepdaughter, Bianca, who’d come to live with her. So Sarah’s brother Josh (Jay Duplass), beckons Colton, the beefy 17-year-old, whom, Josh was stunned to learn in the first season’s finale, he’d fathered as a kid himself. Pfefferman mom Shelly (Judith Light) draws in Josh’s girlfriend, Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), leading the youngest sibling, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), to grouse, “It’s supposed to be family. Anyone else want in?”
Ali’s crack, muttered amid the mayhem, comes off as a throwaway line, but it neatly raises a question any viewer must ask about the lovers and youngsters attaching themselves to this entitled, competitive, relentlessly narcissistic, so very SoCal family: Why would anyone want in? (The Pfeffermans’ dysfunction is hilariously contrasted when the Cashmans efficiently and cheerfully line up for the other bride’s family pic.) And why, one also has to ask, are we so eager to spend five hours in the Pfeffermans’ appalling presence?
Part of the answer certainly lies in the show’s high level of craft and knockout production values. There’s a witty script, with humor and substance even in over-talk, under-the-breath remarks; terrific acting and ensemble playing from the entire cast; cinematic use of the camera; deft music choices that blend beautifully into, and sometimes across, the scenes. Among the songs used so effectively: a trans chanteuse at a Weimar party singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” in German, which segues into Blossom Dearie’s cover and Sia’s “Chandelier,” to which Maura dances in one of the most moving moments of the season. And, of course, there’s the smart engagement with ideas about the fluidity of gender and sexuality, indeed, the dramatization of queer theory—an astonishing achievement for any form of scripted TV. Also unusual for TV: all kinds of people—young, straight, trans, trans-amorous, lesbian, BD/SM-ers, older than 60 (all, that is, but gay men, who have yet to figure as characters)—get to have sex, which ranges from sweet to fevered, manipulative, exploratory, desperate, and just plain bad (occasionally, all at the same time). The show is both sexy and feminist, audacious and concerned with ethics, laugh-out-loud funny and full of pathos. I cried my eyes out during this season’s last episode.