The battle of Netflix vs. Amazon Prime is one that, like DC vs. Marvel, is set to continue in perpetuity. It’s impossible to come to a definite conclusion on which streaming service is superior, but if Transparent is Amazon’s high-water mark then it’s not just Netflix that needs to watch out. Within the first four minutes of its second season premiere, Transparent eases us confidently back into the madcap world of the Pfefferman family, and it’s made instantly clear that this exceptional show hasn’t changed.
The opening scene is a fixed shot of the Pfeffermans prepping themselves for a photo-shoot. It’s Sarah the eldest daughter’s wedding day, and all of the show’s major players are in attendance. This unbroken four minutes of watching a family fuss and preen serves as a neat reminder of who’s who while also recapping exactly what Transparent is all about. It’s about a family and how they interact and coexist, never shying away from the fact they are wrought with imperfections. What’s great about Transparent is that everything is subtly done, from the writing to the direction to the performances, and that is undoubtedly the secret to its success. Never has a union of creative talent both in front and behind the camera worked so well.
Tenderfoot viewers may be disappointed that Transparent is no longer, as many would describe it, ‘a transgender drama’. Society’s increased awareness of trans issues this year – with Caitlyn Jenner’s debut, the surge in TV and film representation and the recent discussion over gender identity all boosting its prevalence in the media – must have been music to the ears of creator and director Jill Soloway in more ways than one. The first season of Transparent blazed a trail for other films and TV series covering trans themes to follow and thus it became a programme of import. Season two swiftly clarifies that the show is no longer about Maura, our ostensible lead, in the same way that Orange Is the New Black outgrew its own protagonist. When you have a show with such a strong ensemble, you can’t blame the writers for broadening their scope and bringing the supporting cast to the fore.
That said, Transparent does spare plenty of time for Maura and we witness her absorption into the transgender community. Season one took more a simple approach to it – Mort Pfefferman came out as Maura, we saw her family’s reaction and Maura started to begin her life as a woman – but season two is a bit more global in its tackling of transgenderism. Here, Soloway and her team of writers explore the concepts of gender (fluidity), sexuality, and transpeople’s role in feminism not just framed through Maura’s eyes but through those of her family to offer alternative interpretations.
Transparent‘s second season is generous in giving the Pfefferman children lots of attention and room to develop their own storylines. Ali spends a great deal of time embracing her newly found lesbianism while Sarah undergoes a journey to discover what she really wants out of love, and Josh, the sole Pfefferman son, tries to maintain his relationship with rabbi girlfriend Raquel. Transparent is really all about a disparate family seeking solace in life and season two reminds us of that more than the first. In season one we followed the lives of Ali, Sarah and Josh, because Transparent was keen on showing the reaction to Maura coming out. Season two gives them their own storylines, which end up overtaking Maura’s, and it pays dividends. Last season the Pfefferman kids were shown as self-absorbed people bordering on dislikeable but presented within their own storylines, they’re fuller, more rounded people.
Season one also included the use of flashbacks into Maura’s past and season two does the same but more sparingly and it’s not Maura’s past we’re looking into. Occasionally Transparent jumps back to Weimar Berlin where we meet Tante Gittel, a young transwoman whose family are in the midst of immigrating to America. The flashbacks are scattershot but effective as is actress Hari Nef who does a terrific job at rounding Gittel in such a short amount of time. At times, the Weimar Berlin storyline, detached from the Pfeffermans in the present day, feels underdeveloped but by the season’s close, it’s solidly sketched. Its relevance, which goes beyond the fact both Gittel and Maura are trans, is particularly neat and as a result the final episode feels like a richly satisfying conclusion of the season’s arc (which won’t be spoiled here).
The Golden Globes this year revealed Transparent to be awards catnip (with three more nominations for next year’s ceremony) and the show turned into the darling of Amazon Studios overnight. As you would expect, there was a not-inconsiderable weight of expectation on season two but, fortunately, the performances have not suffered. Jeffrey Tambor is effortlessly magnificent as Maura; it’s a magnetic turn and while Transparent‘s focus is no longer solely on Maura, she remains its beating heart. Tambor works particularly well with Judith Light who plays Maura’s ex-wife, and the pair possess irresistible chemistry. On her own, Light is a dream: quirky and buoyant yet capable of revealing a hidden vulnerability. As the young Pfeffermans, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffmann are all excellent but occasionally they’re completely upstaged by the likes of Tambor and Light, such is the strength of their performances.
Kathryn Hahn, as Rabbi Raquel, is superb but some of the strongest support comes from Cherry Jones as enigmatic scholar, Leslie Mackinaw whom Ali crosses paths with. Jones is excellent, bringing the right mixture of steely sardonicism and playfulness to the part. One of season two’s biggest coups, however, was the acquisition of Anjelica Huston in a brief but important role as a new confidante for Maura. Tambor and Huston, like the former and Judith Light, are excellent together and their relationship sets up plenty of potential drama for season three.
There is very little wrong with season two of Transparent, so little that it could comfortably be called flawless. The biggest drawback is the length, which is mercilessly short. Ten half an hour episodes may seem like more than enough time in writing but when it comes down to it, it’s simply not enough. Into season two Transparent‘s storylines are increasingly manifold and you can see where the writers cut corners in telling certain stories. It’s a show on level with Orange Is The New Black‘s rich emotional storytelling and season two is less than half the length of Orange Is The New Black‘s most recent run. The storylines aren’t underdeveloped; it just feels like Transparent has so much more to offer but it can’t because of its length. As a consequence, it’s frustrating and saddening that such an extraordinary show is constrained by its format.
In Transparent‘s second season Jill Soloway and company avoid repeating themselves. Despite the critical ballyhoo and high expectations, they’ve achieved the impossible, making an already faultless series even better. By examining the trans community (and society’s relationship with it) through Maura’s eyes and not becoming fetishistically interested in the actual transition, the writers, directors and cast do noble, excellent work. There’s a subtlety about Transparent that very few other current TV shows have: an imperceptible naturalness to everything that makes it riveting television. The dreamy cinematography and direction are worth a mention, too; they’re noticeable but never intrusive.
There’s never a dud episode in Transparent‘s second season, the performances are consummate, the flashback structure exquisitely utilised, the themes covered are darker, more edgy and mature – and it’s funnier. Season one, for a comedy-drama, never felt all that funny but there are some terrific sequences in season two that highlight Transparent‘s potential for black humour. This is a show that deserves to be prefixed with every superlative under the sun. Breathtakingly accomplished and powerful television.