Dec 26, 2015 Film & TV
Season 2 of Transparent begins with a static, four-minute-long shot depicting the gathering of the Pfeffermans for a group photo; the occasion is the wedding of daughter Sarah to Tammy, her supremely annoying girlfriend. It contains every element that makes this series, about a family adjusting to the coming-out of their transgender father, so singular.
The dreamy Californian aesthetics, like a Lana Del Rey video crossed with an issue of Architectural Digest. The Pfeffermans’ deep-rooted Judaism, which sets them proudly apart from the bland WASPs of Tammy’s clan. And the mind-bogglingly complicated familial connections, which at this point include three grown children, one (brand- new) lesbian wife, one ex-stepdaughter, one pregnant girlfriend (also the wedding’s rabbi), one newly discovered biological son and, at the centre, one trans woman: Maura (nee Mort) Pfefferman, now entirely out to the world.
The exploration of who is and isn’t family, and how those ties contend with other relationships — both romantic and societal — is a core theme of this season. As Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is welcomed into the lesbian community, her sister Sarah (Amy Landecker), who had her own lesbian awakening a matter of months before, is ostracised by other parents at her kids’ school.
While Josh (Jay Duplass) and his son’s adopted parents compete to give the teenager a loving home, Ali visits her Alzheimers-afflicted grandmother, who has been almost entirely forgotten by the supremely self-involved Pfeffermans.
Last year, Transparent’s Emmy nominations were all for a comedy — under the arcane rules, it’s all to do with the length of each episode, and less about the actual content. That categorisation seems no less ridiculous this season. There are moments of absurdity, like the life coach who insists the saying is “for all intensive purposes” or the radical feminist scholar who claims, “I don’t really teach, I talk about the things I care about to people who are ready”, but also a slew of scenes that are guaranteed to break your heart.
Sometimes the tragedy is in the performance of overpowering self-hatred, like Sarah’s spiralling depression following her runaway-bride moment in episode 1. But more often it’s revealed in the little hurts and humiliations of life in this most dysfunctional of families.
The embarrassingly nutty Shelly (Judith Light) is a hard character to love, yet her doomed attempt to resurrect her relationship with Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) generates nothing but sympathy. Kathryn Hahn is fantastic as Rabbi Raquel, yoked to the Pfeffermans by her pregnancy and love for man-child Josh, but consistently appalled by their selfishness. The look on her face as she assures the just-married Sarah that a wedding is nothing more than “a pageant, an expensive play” betrays every (justified) fear she has about Josh’s commitment issues.
The first season of Transparent was rightly praised for its idealistic, judgment-free approach to gender and sexual fluidity. In season 2, we see the real-world results. For every character experiencing sexual fulfilment and gender self-actualisation, there’s another left bleeding on the sidelines.
“How did I raise such selfish kids?” Maura moans to her transgender support group in season 1. It’s still a good question.