A show whose politics are as progressive as Transparent always confronts the potential for indulgence. The showrunners’ own progressiveness can blind them. They can fall into a self-congratulatory hole, where once they dare to be politically savvy, they don’t bother to dare anymore. But Transparent, whose subject matter really is as progressive as they come, never stops daring. Rather than offering flat characters solely defined by their marginalization, we are given real people who struggle with their identity and who, like all of us, often feel unfulfilled, question themselves, and fear the future.
The show’s fundamental premise is refreshingly original. Elderly Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), patriarch of the family Pfefferman, a rich Jewish family from the Pacific Palisades, is transitioning to Maura Pfefferman. Season 1 was a monumental critical success, winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. Tambor in particular, another Golden Globe winner, was brilliant. He was timid and delicate, but still a befuddled patriarch, unaware of the mammoth influence he yields over his children.
The big question for Season 2 is the same for all second seasons of successful shows: how to keep the story fresh? Transparent’s creator and writer Jill Soloway wisely opts to focus on the family. Though Season 1 dealt with the family fallout to some extent, it focused more on the story of Maura’s personal discovery. Season 2 watches as the confusion sets in on Maura’s adult children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Allie (Gaby Hoffman), and Josh (Jay Duplass), as they try to make sense of their father’s identity and their own. In Season 1, Maura’s family is a turbulent crowd, but the intense mania of their lives, all of which are incomplete in one way or another, startlingly encompasses Season 2.
Josh tries desperately to start his own family, to become the patriarch that he lost with Mort’s transition. Sarah, who was the most put-together of the three children in Season 1, reverts to a twenty-something who shirks her parental and familial responsibilities so she can explore her sexual desires. Allie, the most hopeful turn around between the two seasons, finds herself, both sexually and intellectually. Still, even she is not totally at peace. She has relationship problems, and she is intimidated by others’ intellects and unsure about her own. The show’s biggest and most beautiful suggestion is that self-discovery, on whatever level, is not an end, but the very beginning.
Soloway and her team of talented fellow directors (Marielle Heller, Stacie Passon, Silas Howard, Jim Frohna, and Andrea Arnold) rarely assault the audience with melancholy. Soloway captures the chaos with her playful eye. The shots have a consistently soft tone, allowing small triumphs and unexpected tender family moments throughout. Some shots look like they belong in a pretentious NYU film thesis–leaves floating in a pool, for instance–but Soloway places them expertly. In fact, they offer welcome breaks from the sometimes draining Pfefferman family.
Soloway took her biggest chance with the show’s new parallel structure. She intersperses the scenes of mid-life tumult with those of a sexually liberated commune in the Weimar Republic. The commune is the El Dorado for the sexually alternative, and the subjects, we soon discover, are the Pfefferman’s very recent ancestors. The mix of these times is both a testament to the progress society has made and an unfortunate realization of how far we need to go. And still, politics take a backseat to larger themes of family, inheritance, and free will.
Listen to the show’s theme song by Dustin O’Halloran: a somber piano solo that, despite moments of build up and high-notes, never can quite pick up enough speed to run away. It stays reserved and, at best, cautiously optimistic. This is life through the eyes of Transparent. Routinely difficult, occasionally joyous, and always beautiful.
Nothing great in life is easy, and Transparent understands this better than most.