Review: Transparent (Second Season)

As the Golden Globe nominations were released, with many surprises to gossip and marvel over (Mad Max: Fury Road for best picture is pretty amazing), it is rather unsurprising and relieving to see that season two of Transparent is once again nominated for best comedy series. Although this season is a slight step down in some ways from the first, it continues to explore the anxieties and desires of the Pfefferman clan deeply but in lovingly blunt, comedic fashion, proving that this is a family comedy unlike any other currently on television.

For those unaware of the show, the story follows the patriarch-turned-matriarch of the Pfefferman family, Maura. Played by Jeffrey Tambor and originally named Mort, the first season dealt with her admission to her narcissistic adult children and ex-wife that she’s always felt she was a woman, and now that she is in her sixties and is single, feels like she has the freedom to pursue the life she felt like she could never have. She grows out her hair, buys a new wardrobe, and asks to be called Maura, much to the confusion and dismay of her family, as reactions by family members around Maura range from supportive, to thinking its silly, to being downright antagonistic. The first season dealt mostly with the shock of the children amidst their own relationship problems, and Maura’s gradual acceptance of her identity in a society that she is aware will mostly not accept her. The second season progresses the character development in many surprising and ambitious ways as Maura explores the sexual landscape of the trans community, becoming more in tune with who she wants to be, while the children’s relationships begin to mature with their significant others, although there are many moments suggesting they are built on faulty foundation.29TRANSPARENT752x440

Jeffrey Tambor remains as one of the strongest aspects of the show, portaying Maura’s conflicting emotions. One of the most interesting storylines this season proved to be the progression of Maura’s rekindled relationship with her ex-wife, Shelley, played by Judith Light. Once coming out as trans to Shelley in the first season, she was the person who ended up supporting her the most, which ended up being one of the most uplifting aspects of the show, paving the way for their story here to be all the more heartbreaking and resonant—a testament to the amazing writing of both seasons. It’s clear that Shelley begins falling back in love with Maura, but she is oblivious to the fact that Maura wants to be alone; as there are parts of her self-actualization that Shelley cannot be a part of. Maura is a resilient and wise character but is constantly unsure of where she belongs in the world, with many scenes displaying her great strength and confusion, at times simultaneously. A sexual encounter involving a bathtub between the two of them early on is both funny and deeply awkward and sad—a perfect example of how many scenes are mined for the humour and melancholy equally, that makes it feel true. Jeffrey Tambor’s performance definitely stays with you, and Judith Light as the funny, infuriating but lonely ex-wife gets a lot of great scenes as well.

Another pleasant surprise was the progression of the son Josh Pfefferman played by Jay Duplass. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say he was the most antagonistic character in the first season, as his emotional immaturity was perhaps the main reason as to why he was unable to accept his father’s transition. Jay Duplass’ performance was so good last year, I wanted to punch him in the face several times but here I just wanted to give him a hug. He wants to be a good father so desperately, shown in his willingness to adopt the teenage son he didn’t know he had for much of his life, and start a family with his fiancée. But slight betrayals and trust issues still call into question if he is in fact ready for all these long-term commitments.  He is in many ways a wide-eyed man-child trying to imitate what the perfect father should be and in doing so doesn’t think how his decisions are affecting those around him. Jay Duplass plays the role perfectly. Although that emotional immaturity remains, there are some great scenes and revelations with him that give his character more dramatic conflicts that he struggles to come to terms with. Near the end of the season when he has a conversation with a rabbi, who proceeds to explain to him the emotional affect his father’s transition is having on him, everything about him makes sense and you see his character in a new light. He quickly became one of the more compelling characters of this season, and Jay Duplass gets more opportunities to display his dramatic ability, to the point where I’m most intrigued with how this subplot will progress into the third season.

The weaker subplots this season are those that involve the two sisters, played by Amy Landecker and Gaby Hoffmann.   Sarah Pfefferman (Landecker) begins dealing with the consequences of rushing into marriage with Tammy (Melora Hardin, who is the most irritating character the creators of the show have given us thus far), as she struggles with not being sure what kind of relationship she wants, while having her own sexual awakening of sorts. Out of the three siblings, Landecker consistently proves to have the best comedic timing but is also equally effective in the scenes where she is utterly confused and scared because of the situation she has placed herself in with her family.   Aside from one scene involving a vivid sexual fantasy, the awkwardness of many of those moments feel played-up for comedic effect. That, along with how her role this season felt much smaller compared to the first, is bit disappointing considering the acting range she clearly has. Gaby Hoffman, while giving a great performance as the emotionally stunted Ali, unfortunately seems to develop the least as a character. Although she has matured in terms of gaining some direction in her life, as seen in her enrolment in a gender studies program at the university Maura once taught at, her inability to form strong relationships with her family and her partner (Carrie Brownstein) remains. The last episode of the first season gave us a confrontation between Ali and Maura that was easily one the most powerful and resonant moments of the show, in my opinion, and I wrongfully assumed that through the ramifications of that scene, we would see some more drastic changes in her character than we’re given. No scene with Aly in this season comes close to eclipsing that and hopefully next season her character isn’t sidelined as much.

Although Gaby Hoffman is given less to do—as the storyline with Ali is less central this season—creator Jill Soloway takes the most risks in terms of writing and directing with the Ali storyline, that pay off wonderfully. Throughout this season, as Ali begins working on a gender studies paper as part of her university application, we are treated to flashbacks of scenes in 1930’s Berlin involving an earlier generation of Pfefferman’s, as they attempt to avoid persecution from the incoming Nazi regime. They find ways to cleverly integrate many of these segments, with familiar actors blending into both timelines, which are also bolstered by strong performances by Emily Robinson, and Michaela Watkins. However, it is the presence of trans-model-turned-actress Hari Nef that gives those scenes an unexpected level of poignancy, as her character, a family member named Gittel, becomes deeply involved in the trans community in Berlin. The events surrounding that character provide insight into the kinds of societal reverberations that are affecting Maura in the present, and how the personal struggles of these people are nothing new, thus providing context for how slow-moving their acceptance on a large, societal level has been. The lasting emotional effect of these segments are certainly a slow build, as it isn’t entirely revealed what the direct relation of these characters are to the present generation from the get-go, and there are a couple of moments where jumping back and forth in time is a tad jarring. However, once all is revealed to you in the second-to-last episode, the cumulative affect of those scenes is surprisingly moving and gives Maura a scene in the last episode that bookends the season beautifully, that is more optimistic and heart-warming than the previous season. It could have felt like a didactic history lesson, but the playful manner in which Soloway integrates these scenes makes them a welcome surprise.

The storylines this season felt a little less cohesive compared to the first, as the characters began branching off from Maura following the initial shock of their father’s transition, but the characters this season are taken in largely new and intriguing directions. Although this season was not perfect, Transparent continues to be one of the most interesting family dramas currently on television, in my opinion. The mixture of sadness with humour makes the show feel infinitely relatable and true to life, and although the show carries with it a strong message about acceptance and struggling to live out your best self, it never gets in the way of the stellar storytelling. Even though many of the characters are going through things you yourself may know little about at the beginning, the characters are so well drawn that watching this show feels like coming home.

Photos courtesy of Amazon Prime

Jordan Dziewir is an online editor for If he isn’t out seeing a movie, he’s probably at home reading, looking at movie listings online, or stressing about something. Follow his mile a minute life on Facebook here.


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