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.
For me, the binding agent that makes Transparent’s messed-up mishpocheh so spellbinding has to do with the show’s sly use of its high-octane Jewy-ness. Soloway flaunts it as a structuring principle and mines it for the timbre of the show’s mordant humor, at once self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing. What’s more, she melds the Jewish stance with the show’s unrepentant queerness.
If anything, season two kicks up the Jewy-ness a few notches—which is saying a lot, given how potent it was last year. Season one, for example, featured a flashback to the cancellation of Ali’s bat mitzvah (so that Maura—then Mort—could secretly attend a cross-dressing camp that took place at the same time). The writing here shrewdly exploits the traditional meaning: Ali misses out on the ceremony through which she would become a woman so that Maura can begin her journey toward becoming fully herself. Similarly, a family shabbes dinner tacitly invokes the underlying liturgy that is all about binaries—separating the day of rest from the other six, the holy from the profane, male from female—simultaneously to honor and undo them: Maura takes the mother’s role of lighting the candles.
The new season goes to the holiest of holies: Yom Kippur and Holocaust. One episode is built around the Day of Atonement, with most of the Pfeffermans fumbling the holiday’s demand that one ask forgiveness and make amends—an effort they fail at because they seem to think that trampling on others is excused by their own blithe suffering and incessant effort to find their bliss. The Nazi past marches into the present as Ali reads about epigenetics—parents’ transfer of trauma to their offspring through DNA—and several times, the action flashes back to Weimar Berlin to provide some backstory on Tante Gittel, the aunt mentioned in the first season, and her sister, Rose, Maura’s mother, now elderly and living in a home.
And then there’s that first-episode wedding: a spectacular Jewish affair, with the family wincing verbally at the photographer’s anti-Semitic gaff; Sarah stomping on a glass under a chuppah; and the crowd dancing a manic hora as the band’s vocalist (Ayana Haviv) shmaltzily over-enunciates the words to “Hava Nagila,” the camera closing in freakishly on her thickly painted, contorting red lips. The grotesqueness carries forward the tilt-a-whirl sense of proceedings we see sometimes from Sarah’s woozy viewpoint—ground shifting, voices warping—before she runs off and melts down in a bathroom stall, realizing she does not want to be trapped in a marriage with Tammy, either. “I fucking hate Tammy. I hate her fucking family. Those fucking WASPs.” At the same time, the scene is also just plain grotesque, teetering on ugly stereotype in a way that surprisingly becomes part of the show’s appeal. Soloway brazenly throws around such images as if they have no power to harm, as if there’s no reason to be embarrassed by Jews who can be crass and loud and pushy and argumentative. Not only because they are also so many other things, but because, well, why not? What’s so bad about crass, loud, pushy, argumentative? Soloway suggests that there’s pleasure in those attributes, too, and in knowing their codes. She renders the metric “not good for the Jews” an anachronism. And indeed, my partner quickly turned back to the show, binge-watching it all in a day.
In the new season, Soloway extends this technique to lesbian culture, giving Transparent a dense, droll dyke-iness that parallels its Jewy-ness. It shapes some major plot arcs (not least Ali’s crash-course conversion to lesbian feminism) and surfaces in murmured, secondary bits of dialogue and in set-design signifiers that the camera lingers on, but that no one mentions. Just as Shelly urges everyone in that wedding picture to hurry up by invoking a Jewish day of mourning (“We’re not waiting until tisha b’av”), when Tammy calls to her two ex-wives to be in the Cashman family picture, one of them says to the other, “She’s collecting us, like lesbian Pokémon.” Just as grandma Rose has a Hebrew candle-lighting prayer hanging on the wall of her room, a lesbian poet and scholar that Ali becomes infatuated with, Leslie Mackinaw (played by a smoldering Cherry Jones) has decorated her home with huge Catherine Opie photos.
And just as Soloway ushers us inside SoCal Jewry, she also places us thoroughly within sapphic space. In the third episode, for instance, Ali and Syd (Carrie Brownstein)—the friend she jilts in season one, only to become (for a time) her lover this season—attend a lesbian bowling night. Ali, a newcomer to the scene, realizes she’s the only one who doesn’t know Leslie Mackinaw’s work (two of the women have exes who named their cat after her!) and covers as she googles the poet on her smartphone: “I’m so pissed at myself for having a drunken date-rapey freshman year.” Ali reads aloud from a work she pulls up (actually, a poem by Eileen Myles, on whom Leslie was based and who makes some cameo appearances this season): “…I always put my lover’s cunt/ on the crest/ of a wave/ like a flag/ that I can/ pledge my/ allegiance/ to. This is my/ country…” As we hear Ali in voiceover, the camera pans—cruises—the gathering: Young women of all hues and sizes neck, flirt, ogle each other, glance at the camera. At ease in their bodies, they emit a charge that courses right through the computer screen. These are sizzling, self-sovereign women, not on display for the male gaze. Outside of women’s tennis, that is no doubt a first for TV. (And yes, I watched The L Word.)
But no more than in shul or around a festival table, pure lesbian heaven does not exist on this show, not even in lesbian heaven. In Episode 9—my pick for the most astounding 30 minutes of television of 2015, and, it turns out, the most controversial—Maura, Sarah, and Ali attend the Idylwild Wimmin’s Music Festival, an all-women revel in the woods. Soloway celebrates the communal euphoria of the camping weekend, while also taking up its contradictions and internal divisions. The three Pfeffermans make their way there at the end of Episode 8, singing an Indigo Girls tune in the car, which could well serve as Transparent’s overall theme song: “There’s more than one answer to these questions/ pointing me in a crooked line/ The less I seek my source for some definitive/ The closer I am to fine.” The Indigo Girls themselves appear in Episode 9, playing “Hammer and Nail”—the lesbian “Hava Nagila”—from the stage as the three Pfeffermans join the multiculti, multigenerational crowd of women, many of them bare-breasted or butt-naked, belting and bopping along with as much abandon and shamelessness as those hora dancers in the season opener. For me, the parallel is an all-important clue to the complicated, cheeky humor with which Soloway treats the festival. While some critics have objected to the episode’s “contempt for dyke culture,” I see it as pushing past parody to poignancy, just as Soloway does with the Pfeffermans’ brand of contemporary Jewishness.
Most daring, Soloway brings to the fore the divisive issue that propelled the recent demise, after 40 years, of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (the model for Idylwild, albeit comically condensed and altered): the intention to restrict the space to “womyn-born womyn.” Like the Pfeffermans’ often off-kilter Jewish observances, the scene around a campfire, in which Leslie and her friends discuss trans exclusion with Maura and Ali, reflects the series’ overall themes: questions of boundaries, individual and collective; the ways in which the personal is political, and the ways that mantra can be warped into making injury itself a politics; the perks and perils of privilege, acknowledged or denied; how and why an oppressed community might carve out space for itself; what or who a woman (or anyone) is, anyway, and what or who gets to decide.
If the show’s sympathy clearly falls on Maura’s side of the debate, it also gives a fair hearing to all views and challenges Maura’s Pfeffermaniacal narcissism. “I didn’t rape you,” she tells one woman who is trying to explain how patriarchal violence produces a general antipathy toward penises. “I was in way too much pain to experience any privilege,” Maura says, referring to her life as Mort, sounding both pitiable and preposterous. Leslie (an exploitative letch, it turns out, nicely complicating her heroism) schools Maura: “Your pain and your privilege are separate.” It’s a lesson for the affluent, entitled Pfeffermans in general.
More than last season, this year the viewpoint shifts from Pfefferman to Pfefferman, drawing us more into each family member’s inner lives—and repelling us from their outrageous behaviors. (Shelly, most of all, acquires more traction; her loneliness and lack of center shrewdly snarl up her Jewish-mother shtick.) With Maura’s coming out no longer serving as the central spark setting off her children’s reactions, she deepens as a character. A doctor she visits for hormones in Episode 4 prescribes that she get to know her body, and that pretty much defines her arc this year, culminating in a tender encounter with a cis-woman named Vicky (Angelica Huston), who will no doubt (one hopes!) figure significantly in season three, slated for late 2016.
Maura also begins to get in touch with a body politic. She connects more to trans community, living in a spare room at the modest home of her friend, Davina (Alexandra Billings), chatting with easy intimacy with her and their friend Shea (Trace Lysette) about sex, surgical options, love, and disappointment. She signs up as a volunteer for a suicide hotline and attends a trans bar with friends. Soloway spares trans culture from the irreverent–yet-simpatico comic lens through which she views Jewish and lesbian spheres (so far, at least). She has brought more trans people into the program as writers, actors, directors, tech crew, and administrators, and, through Maura’s eyes, we see experiences far different from her own. Davina confronts her even more pointedly about her privilege than Leslie does at the campfire. After Davina’s boyfriend, Sal, exposes Maura to her first dose of mansplaining, Maura tells Davina she could “do better.” Davina lets her have it: “We don’t all have your family. We don’t all have your money. I’m a 53-year-old, ex-prostitute, HIV-positive woman with a dick, and I know what I want and I know what I need, and if Sal is bothering you so much, you should probably sleep somewhere else.”
Davina isn’t the only one to tell off a Pfefferman for a failure of empathy. Over-sharers all, they spill forth, often unable to make psychic room for what others properly expect to share with them. Sarah, bereft and befuddled, tries to join the school committee headed by Barb, the wife Tammy dumped to run after Sarah. In one of the show’s funniest and most trenchant exchanges, Barb refuses Sarah’s overture: “I’m sorry if my boundary is your trigger,” she says. Sarah replies, “I don’t know what that means.” Indeed.
The boldest breaching of boundaries in season two involves time—on both personal and epic scales. Maura sends snapshots from her youth to a service that re-genders them, producing images of a girlhood that had been visible only in her imagination. More radically, Soloway collapses some eight decades in the shifts to Berlin. Scenes featuring Hani Nef as Gittel, are set at Magnus Hirshfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the pioneering research center and haven for sexual minorities, in operation from 1919 to 1933, when Nazis raided it and burned its archive in the streets. These scenes establish an important queer historical legacy as well as a personal one for the Pfeffermans—in both cases, one of bravery and promise and of trauma.
They do more than fuse a powerful backstory to the fictive present. Soloway inverts Nazi analogizing of Jews and queers; their propaganda cast both groups as dangerous, gender-dysfunctional perverts (even charging that Jewish men menstruated). Such hateful correspondences are still too easy to find. When Transparent began, it drew spews of transphobia in various on-line venues where hate speech grows like moss under the shade of anonymity—and, in tandem, anti-Semitic denunciations. “Fucking jews everywhere nowadays!!!” went one comment posted on the YouTube site with Transparent’s first trailer. And another: “I see the jews in Hollywood worked hard on this one.”
The Weimar plotline, though sometimes heavy-handed, recuperates the Jewish-queer connection in a complex, salutary way. Not through role-model politics—the Pfeffermans are way too unlikable, and Soloway way too savvy, for that—but through a radical investigation of ethnic, sexual, and gender identities as both socially constructed and individually felt, both suspect and indispensable.
Soloway shifts the typically presumed spectator’s standpoint, from which one gazes upon otherness from a bemused, even patronizing, distance. Instead, she brings viewers all the way inside, where the “non-normative” make no effort to assimilate to or perform for the mainstream.
The season ends with heartbreaking ambiguity that opens out questions the show raises about cultural memory and its relationship to self-making. Maura finally pays a visit to her elderly mother, Rose, despite having been warned by her sister, in Episode 1, “to let that woman get off this planet without knowing about—this,” that is, about Maura’s transition. Neither of them knows about Rose’s long-ago support for her trans sibling, Gittel, and it’s not clear whether fading Rose recognizes Maura at all. But as Ali leans toward her grandmother, Rose reaches for the pearl ring dangling on a chain from her neck, once given to Rose by Gittel. Now this gaudy token of courage and loss represents a story no one can tell.