In a recent interview with The New Yorker model and Transparent star Hari Nef said something that hits the nail on the head when it comes to the influx of trans issues that have entered the mainstream. “There isn’t a trans moment,” she said. “There were zero, and now there are ten to fifteen. That’s not a moment. It’s just a presence where there was an absence”
Fresh from winning yet another deserved clutch of Emmys, Transparent is a drama that’s certainly made its presence felt in TV show business. Jill Soloway’s sophisticated direction and the top-notch work of her cast isn’t just a beautiful examination of gender, sexuality and privilege, it’s also marvellous television.
Transparent excels in its sharp characterisation and dialogue that skilfully mixes humour and pathos. The world of the Pfeffermans, the well-heeled LA family whose father’s transition kick-started season one, is so engrossing because it feels real on almost every level. As a very character-focused series, Transparent, at times, feels like both nothing and everything is happening, thanks to the naturalistic dialogue and its avoidance of melodrama.
Season three picks up where we last left Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and her family, and once again they’re all unhappy in different ways. Maura, despite unwavering support from those around her and a blossoming dalliance with the charming Vicki (another brilliantly understated turn by Anjelica Huston), remains disillusioned with her life. She is uneasy about her relationship with her body and for the first time seriously considers taking steps to medically transition. As you would expect from a show like this, the subject of gender confirmation surgery is handled with a deft touch.
Much like with season two, Maura is no longer the main focus of Transparent, with each of the Pfefferman brood (as their mother Shelly affectionately refers to them) dealing with their own problems. Shelly (Judith Light) remains outwardly enthusiastic about performing her one-woman show, ‘To Shel and Back’, but, as always with her, she’s repressing deeper feelings and hiding behind jittery smiles.
Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is struggling to settle into a monogamous relationship with Leslie, her feminist academic girlfriend (played by a very smoky and mysterious Cherry Jones) while Josh (Jay Duplass) faces his darkest season yet; without love, without a career he’s wholly happy with and seemingly without a purpose.
Similarly, Sarah (Amy Landecker) sees her life continuing on a downward spiral despite finding a more comfortable living situation and exploring her new-found taste for S&M.
One of the major themes season three tackles is privilege and the whole notion of privilege dictating your life in a way you can’t prevent. A criticism commonly levelled against Transparent is that it tries to pass off the problems of a wealthy, white LA family as universal. Season three feels as if Soloway is addressing that misconception head-on. While, yes, Transparent does occupy a world that is alien to many people, it’s the writing and performances that makes these flawed people so human and, inevitably, relatable. We can all identify on some level with Ali, Josh, Shelly, Sarah and Maura’s situations, and Transparent works because their reactions are so true to life.
It’s apparent that in its third season Transparent has become much broader. With a move away from Maura, and, consequently, trans issues, Soloway and company have room (albeit not much room; Transparent remains brutally brief at ten half-hour episodes) to explore topics such as spirituality, existentialism, Judaism and intersectionality. Through a fascinating subplot with Rabbi Raquel (the glorious Kathryn Hahn, Transparent‘s MVP) the show poses a great deal of questions about personal identity and our place in the world, without attempting the folly of providing any definitive answers.
Flashbacks have always been crucial to Transparent and it has long since used cutaways to add to the current-day plot. Last season explored the younger years of Rose, Maura’s mother, Rose’s sister, Gittel, and how the Pfeffermans came to America. In season three we have flashbacks that serve as almost a sequel to those in season two, exploring Maura’s early life and how she viewed her gender identity as a pre-teen. This is all contained in an episode that’s beautifully written by Our Lady J and tenderly portrayed by Sophia Grace Gianna as young Maura.
Without masterful performances to do the writing justice, Transparent simply wouldn’t work. Yet again, it delivers quality acting in spades. Jeffrey Tambor continues to be breath-taking as Maura, and season three asks for a far more physical performance from him than ever before. Naturally, Tambor is up to the challenge and takes us on another emotional journey, both mentally and physically.
It’s also no surprise that Judith Light brings great depths to Shelly once again. She’s a joy in the role, providing comic relief when required but never failing to impress in the show’s more serious moments. Shelly’s a difficult role to play but Light keeps her interesting and grounded. She has an interesting foil in the form of Richard Masur’s Buzzy, Shelly’s kindly yet overindulgent new beau, and their storyline goes in directions you may not expect from a show like this one.
As for the Pfefferman kids? Landecker, Hoffmann and Duplass have honestly never been better. Season three is perhaps the trio’s toughest run yet, but each continues to breathe so much life into their roles. Duplass especially is exceptional. The scripts also serve him well, nailing the balance between his good intentions and presumptiveness, traits that have defined Josh since the beginning.
In season three, the world of Transparent feels significantly more lived-in thanks to the prominence of the supporting cast. By giving the likes of Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette (who play Maura’s trans sisters, Davina and Shea) more to do, Transparent is widening its net to encompass other stories than just the Pfeffermans’. Throw in Vicki and Buzzy as well as Sarah’s ex-husband, Len and Josh’s estranged son, Colton, and the result is a community of different characters with their own lives. Never has Transparent felt so much like a rich tapestry of storylines.
While other acclaimed TV dramas are struggling to reproduce the success of their first seasons, somehow Jill Soloway and co. have done it again. Season three of Transparent is another triumph. Broadening its scope to explore issues pertinent to society today, Transparent delivers the goods and then some. The cast are on characteristically top form, the writing is enviably strong and the series finale leaves you wanting more.
With a fourth season already green-lit, more from the Pfeffermans is on its way. When a TV show is of this quality though, it’s sure to feel like another long wait.
Transparent season 3 is available now on Amazon Video.