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Transparent‘s third season was a wonderful, moving, and complex delve into the world of the Pfefferman clan. But, while the series remains one of the best on television, it’s third season wasn’t quite as strong as its past two, particularly when compared to the absolutely spectacular second season of the series. While Transparent‘s second season felt like a fully realized ten-episode story, perfectly tying together the past and the present, season three consisted of a number of hanging story threads that never resolved themselves in any meaningful way (save for one arc, which I will get into in the spoiler section). Now, that isn’t to say that the season wasn’t successful. No, each episode was engaging, the acting was strong, and what we learned about the Pfefferman family felt earned. But it just didn’t work for me as a cohesive season the way the series has in the past.
That being said, if you haven’t watched the third season of Transparent yet, I urge you to do so. If you have, join me below the break for a spoiler-filled review of the third season.
There was a lot to enjoy this season in Transparent, even if there were a number of storylines that just didn’t past muster by the close of the season. To begin, what an amazing season arc for Judith Light’s Shell. While Light has been wonderful throughout the run of the series, Shell hasn’t had a chance to stand outside of the family. Her story has been tied so closely to Maura’s transition and her role (or lack thereof) in the lives of her children that we hadn’t had a chance to understand who she is outside of Maura and her kids. At the end of season two, I found myself telling people that I wished the show would give Shell more to do. Well, I certainly got my wish with her season three arc.
One of the major recurring themes throughout Transparent has been identity- how the world sees each person and how that person sees him or herself. We’ve spent time with Maura, Ali, and Sarah as they have struggled to redefine who they are. We’ve seen Josh struggle with his deep hope of becoming part of a traditional family structure, and seen him crumble when he realized that might not be possible for him at this stage in his life. But for two seasons, all we have seen is Shell flashing out from the background within the lives of Maura and her children. She has been the character most defined by those around her, but the only one who never took steps to try and claim back the narrative of her identity from the people she loves the most.
And that is why Shell’s arc was the most successful within the season: it was a chance to watch the character take control of her personal story for the first time. Yes, Shell can be overbearing and desperate for attention. But she was right on track when she chastised her children for not wanting to spend time with her. By giving us a window into her past (in the season’s eighth episode, the crowning jewel of the season, “If I Were a Bell”), we now have an understanding of Shell that was missing over the past two and a half seasons. It’s easier to understand why she relishes the spotlight. Why she wants to be included in everything. And why she, above all, has a deep desire to be loved. Even when the source of that love isn’t open and honest with her. By the time the story reaches Shell’s cruise show, we are actively rooting for the show to be genuinely good and not the train wreck we have been conditioned to expect from stories such like these. I’ll fully admit to tearing up with joy when Shell succeeded. While the rest of the Pfefferman clan might not have ended the seasons on victorious notes, it was really wonderful to see Shell get the due she deserved.
I just wish the rest of the season arcs had been as successful. Ali’s arc was interesting on the surface, but there wasn’t enough time given to really exploring the reasons behind the character’s unhappiness in her personal life. Sure, a relationship with Leslie isn’t the most stable of relationships, but Ali’s continual need to “save” Josh played out simply as a general escape mechanism for the character. Was Ali afraid that Leslie might, in fact, genuinely love her? Had she been expecting the relationship to explode since its inception, and was thus attempting to sabotage it without consciously realizing it? Or is this just Ali’s MO? While I don’t expect or even want the series to spell things out to the audience, more clarity was needed as to what exactly Ali’s motivation was when she bailed on Leslie and headed off the Kansas.
Similarly, Josh has been floating along, untethered , for several seasons now. Like Ali, he has found a level of success in his professional life, yet seems to have a constant need to sabotage his own success. His need to latch onto Colton in the wake of Rita’s suicide was completely understandable, but I had hoped to see Josh take some meaningful steps to begin building his life back up this season. As for the eldest Pfefferman, Sarah’s arc was an absolute non-starter. While Sarah hasn’t had all that much to do over the course of the series compared to Josh and Ali, season three really did the character a complete disservice. Amy Landecker, like the rest of the show’s exceptional cast, is a wonderfully talented actress, yet she’s consistently given the short shrift when it comes to season arcs. The Sarah of season three wasn’t much changed from the Sarah of season two. Perhaps she was a bit darker, but her arc (attempting to join the board at the temple and continuing her ultimately failed exploration of BDSM) in season three lacked forward movement. One thing I look for when reviewing a season of television is how much the show’s characters grew or changed over the course of the season. Sarah’s season three arc failed that test completely.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on Maura’s arc. While I would classify her story this season as successful, it still didn’t quite feel as well structured as her story from season two. One thing Transparent does particularly well is presenting how varied the stories of characters who fall under the umbrella of transgender are. Maura’s story is vastly different from Shea’s (and kudos to Trace Lysette for her excellent work this season, particularly in “The Open Road”), which is vastly different than Davina’s. Maura’s need to obtain gender confirmation surgery to fully complete her transition is completely understandable, even to a cisgendered audience. The realization that, due to a minor heart condition, Maura will not be able to achieve the last major element to complete her physical transformation was heartbreaking (although, something that I suspect we all saw coming, as having Jeffrey Tambor playing the character was always going to present an inability for Maura to ever fully transition in the way the character has wanted to since the show’s beginning).
Like Sarah and Josh, Maura still remains a deeply flawed and selfish character, often thinking only how something impacts her and not those around her. She relishes being the center of attention and pouts when her announcements aren’t received with the reaction she seeks. While Maura has learned a great deal more about herself and the trans world, she still remains rather clueless about her own family and their struggles. It’s a testament to the work of Tambor and the writing staff that Maura’s shortcomings are never particularly damning toward the character. Rather, her failings make her more relatable to the audience.
Transparent is still one of the best shows on television, even if season three was not to the standard one has come to expect from the series. A small dip in quality is to be expected in the run of a series, and I have every confidence that with a bit more focus on character and story arcs, season four will be another crowning achievement for the series.