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There’s something truly special about Transparent– it just keeps getting better. While the series had a strong freshman outing in 2014 (and was rewarded handsomely for it, most recently with a number of Emmys this past September), its second season (which I have seen in its entirety) manages to actually improve on the strengths of season one.
For this second go-round with the Pfefferman family, the entire gang is back and more complicated than ever. While season one centered clearly on Maura’s transition to her true self, season two is much more of an ensemble piece, using Maura’s growing personal confidence as the spark for her children to be more open in their own lives and explore their own identity and sense of self. We saw some of that begin in season one, with Ali and Sarah exploring their sexuality and Josh attempting to quell his lothario ways and make a concerted attempt at monogamy with Rabbi Raquel. Season two builds on these developments, offering strong arcs for each of the three Pfefferman children (Judith Light’s Shelly is the one member of the clan who gets a bit short-changed, with her arc ending around the midpoint of the season).
The season’s premiere (which was released last week- the rest of the season will drop on Friday, December 11), jumps right back into the strange yet mesmerizing world of the Pfefferman clan (complete with a spectacular opening sequence) with Sarah realizing (at the most inopportune of times) what we’ve known since season one: that her relationship with Tammy was built on a foundation of sand and sex, not something lasting. As with everything else on Transparent, this revelation isn’t one played for laughs and isn’t treated as a chance to sneer at Sarah’s shortsightedness. Rather, the episode unfolds slowly, building to the moment of realization. Yes, it’s painful at times (especially watching Melora Hardin’s Tammy realize what is happening), but that’s life.
From her failed wedding, Sarah drifts throughout the season, trying to discover who she is now that the titles of wife and mother (at least for a portion of each week, per her divorce settlement) no longer define her. It’s compelling to see Sarah- who spent so much of season one clinging to others in an attempt to find herself- alone and actually exploring what she wants out of life. On the flip side, Josh spends the season trying to come to terms in his new roles of father and supportive partner. For someone so used to having the space to fail spectacularly (with little to no consequences for his actions), Josh’s intentions may be pure, but he lacks the ability to understand the need for communication with others (something that can almost certainly be traced back to the lack of communication in the Pfefferman clan as a whole). Both Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass turn in nuanced performances, going to dark and complicated places, but still never losing sight of the comedy that is at the heart of the show.
The season’s meatiest storylines go, once again, to Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali and Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura. Ali, who used Maura’s reveal in season one as a jumping off point for her own torrid exploration of self, is more grounded this season, diving into a relationship and finally making clear strides toward a career of sorts. However, just because Ali seems to have a greater focus doesn’t mean that she has everything figured out. Rather, there are still a number of personal lessons learned throughout her superb arc, which coincides with wonderful- and heartbreaking- flashbacks to 1933 Germany and an earlier generation’s struggles (I promise, there is a clear tie-in here, and it’s one of the more beautiful aspects of the season). Hoffmann is such an unrestrained actress and is completely engaging whenever she is on screen. I could easily watch an entire season just following Ali’s exploits.
Like Ali, season two finds Maura more settled in her gender identity. But her journey has transitioned to navigating the ins and outs of interpersonal relationships and the greater queer community as a whole. Dating, attraction, and discrimination within the queer community itself present new challenges that frustrate and devastate Maura along the way. Again, Tambor is absolutely heartbreaking and inspiring, imbuing Maura with a new sense of confidence- but one that can easily be shaken and torn down, exposing the scared woman underneath.
The 10-episode season goes by in a blink of an eye (most episodes are under 30 minutes). There is a soothing aspect to watching the Pfefferman family stumble through life, slowly but surely recognizing their own failings and seeking (albeit, often without real success) to course correct. Above all, this is a story told with love by Jill Soloway and her writing staff. Love for the characters, respect for Maura and her journey, and trust in the show’s audience to accept the characters’ failures and take joy in their triumphs (no matter how minor) as we take this journey with them. Transparent remains a spectacular show, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.