Better-than-ever Transparent transitions into a study of American Jewish-ness

By Hank Stuever

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in Season 3 of Transparent. Photo / Amazon Studios
Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in Season 3 of Transparent. Photo / Amazon Studios

It's easy to run out of superlatives for Jill Soloway's dramedy Transparent, which returned for a third season on Lightbox, fresh from additional Emmy wins this week for Soloway (for directing) and the show's star, Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a 70-year-old transgender woman.

There are a couple of reasons we don't talk about Transparent as much as we should (or as much as we talk about other shows). One reason might be the near-unanimity with which critics and viewers have agreed that the series is beautifully conceived, is flawlessly acted and seems to only get better with each episode.

The other reason exists in that far more complicated, grayer area outside the heteronormative, cisgender comfort zone in this, the year of insipid bathroom laws and other shoddily manufactured phobias. If that's why you haven't made time for Transparent, then please just take it someplace else. It's a boring argument.

And, as Transparent has made sharply clear, this is a show in which every character, not just Tambor's Maura Pfefferman, is on a transitory path - perhaps not as dire or innate, but no less worthy of debate or discovery. And certainly no less moving. Late in Season 2, it was possible to see Maura's transitioning as merely a piece of the Pfefferman family puzzle, going back almost a century.

The least anchored and youngest of Maura's three emotionally peripatetic children, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), began pursuing graduate work in gender studies, curious about where her family history and Jewish history and transgender history might connect.

Amy Landecker as Sarah, Jay Duplass as Josh and Gaby Hoffman as Ali in the television show Transparent. Photo / Amazon Studios
Amy Landecker as Sarah, Jay Duplass as Josh and Gaby Hoffman as Ali in the television show Transparent. Photo / Amazon Studios

In ways that are both blunt and subtle, attentive viewers of the show now understand Transparent as a broader, epic story about the American Jewish experience - particularly as it is lived by a family with an on-again, off-again dependence on faith. Thanks to Ali's barely formed thesis proposal, Transparent has provided profound but easily connected dots along the notion of Jewish escape, flashing back to scenes of the previous generation's tumultuous yet fortuitous flight from Berlin in the 1930s and the capture of Maura's uncle, Tante Gittel (born Gershon), a young trans woman.

These scenes were not presented in the name of narrative tidiness or obligations to Holocaust references; they all but announced that Transparent is now working less like a dramedy (that word becomes increasingly useless here) and more like an 800-page novel about something bigger than all of us. Season 3 continues to reveal key moments from the past, particularly from Maura's childhood, but also that of Maura's ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light).

Oy, Shelly. She would certainly agree with me that Transparent is just as much her show as it is Maura's or the kids'. Light's performance is as key to the show's success as Tambor's, extending some tropes about Jewish mothers into a deeply psychological portrait of self-centeredness - the insistent ego, which has become a Pfefferman family specialty.

Judith Light as Shelly in the television show Transparent. Photo / Amazon Studios
Judith Light as Shelly in the television show Transparent. Photo / Amazon Studios

Shelly has turned her experiences of seeing her children's father become a woman into a story about herself, a one-woman show she's producing called To Shell and Back, produced by her shifty new live-in boyfriend, Buzz (Richard Masur), a huggy bear the children warily refer to as the Jewish Santa Claus.

Maura, meanwhile, considers the next stages of her transition while still dating Vicki (Anjelica Huston), who acts as a perceptive and calm influence. Enumerating her blessings, Maura is still troubled: "Why am I so unhappy?" she asks.

Ali has unwisely coupled with the gender-studies department's star professor, a poet named Leslie Mackinaw (Cherry Jones), whose pro-Palestinian politics run afoul of a Sabbath celebration staged by Rabbi Raquel Fein (Kathryn Hahn) and oldest Pfefferman sibling Sarah (Amy Landecker), whose search for meaning and satisfaction has led her to loosey-goosey expressions of spirituality, as well as weekly spanking sessions with a dominatrix. Josh (Jay Duplass) remains the least sympathetic of the Pfeffermans, impulsively emotional and unrelentingly self-focused.

It's that kind of show. In fact, it is probably the finest iteration we will ever see of that kind of show, in the entire (somewhat short) history of the half-hour TV-series genre we keep categorizing as "comedies" for the purpose of handing out trophies. Really what we're praising here verges on literary fiction - speckled with wryly observed details and ironic encounters but drenched mostly in one heartache after another.

It's no secret that a lot of these premium-cable and streaming shows are in some way about characters who are Jewish, or at least Jewish-ish, often because these shows are produced and written by people who are simply following the best advice, producing and writing what they know.

To have watched some the best half-hour shows of the past 15 or 20 years - anything since Seinfeld - is to have become at least conversant in Jewish upbringing, culture and kvetching. We don't discuss it much in TV criticism, mainly because it sends the worst of our anonymous commenters into the rush-hour lane of anti-Semitism, where the only off-ramp is marked "Hollywood - Controlled by Jews."

First of all, so what if it is? And secondly, from this goyish, Catholic-schooled viewer's estimation, Transparent is well on its way to becoming a definitive and classic work on the subject of Jewishness as "otherness." When Maura, from memory, offers the kaddish for a recently departed character, Transparent once more reaches a state of sublimity, a feat it somehow accomplishes in just about every episode.

There's more to talk about here than the mystery of gender and relationships. Transparent is the best show we have right now about personal identity - of any and all human kinds.

Season 3 of Transparent is now available on Lightbox.

- Washington Post

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