ALL HAIL JUDITH LIGHT.
The final episode of Transparent’s third season is a nice capper, particularly for Maura and the long-awaited breakdown between Josh and Ali. But make no mistake: “Exciting and New” belongs to the glorious, hilarious, and heartbreaking Shelly Pfefferman.
Light delivers an outstanding performance, shading in all of the classic Shelly tones while defining a character who is ridiculous and courageous in equal measures. The set piece is her magnificent To Shell and Back, which is somehow almost not funny at all (other than the Buzzy-directed opening), though it wouldn’t work without the incredible nuance and humor that Shelly lends to the rest of the episode.
The Pfeffermans are all on Buzzy’s cruise, and although Buzzy himself has been kicked to the curb, Shelly’s determined to reconnect with her family. At times, she’s as overdramatic and ridiculous as she has always been. It briefly feels like a return to the self-centered declaration Shelly made at Maura’s birthday party, when she announced that she too was transitioning — into a brand! Her most over-the-top moments involve the nudging suggestion that she and Maura are both there and single by fate, or her repeated laugh line: “Trevor is the gay who comes with my room.”
In less talented hands, Light’s performance could so easily fall into melodramatic caricature. There’s plenty of opportunity for it: Shelly is put off when everyone ignores her in favor of their phones, she’s learning about “self-care,” she’s incensed that they roll their eyes at her when she complains about being left out and mocked. When she and Trevor hatch the plan for her to perform To Shell and Back in the renowned Spinnaker Lounge, it seems like we’re about to achieve peak cringeworthy self-delusion.
It’s a classic move, really. Characterization sets us up to expect a complete disaster, and then we end up cheering lustily for a character’s triumph. You may remember this device from such places as Jack Black’s performance in High Fidelity, or Napoleon Dynamite’s unexpected dance moves. And I’ll admit, I bought into this one. The one-woman show was already operating with an awfully low bar of expectations, but “Exciting and New” throws in the additional kicker of casting Tom Lenk as Trevor, The Gay Who Comes With Shelly’s Room. As he does so often in Joss Whedon productions, Lenk plays up the wide-eyed cluelessness here, feeding into the expectation that To Shell and Back will flop harder than Jars of Clay at a bar mitzvah.
But it’s not just that Shelly gives a great performance. The Transparent version of this trope is so much more complicated and tragic than Jack Black belting “Let’s Get It On.” We get the barest hints of what’s to come during Ali’s makeshift seder, as the Pfeffermans gather in the cruise ship’s chapel around a cocktail serving platter of saltines (matzah), raisins and nuts soaked in vinegar, what’s probably a pork bone, and a dish of wasabi. It has not been an entirely successful cruise for most of them. Josh has been wandering around the ship in his own David Foster Wallace essay, and he finally confronts Ali after she leans into her Jewish mysticism and loses $25,000 at roulette. “I’m not your fucking boyfriend,” he yells in the ship’s casino.
Maura’s been similarly adrift, although she deals with it better than Josh. There’s a particularly funny bit where she inquires about some new clothes in one of the ship’s stores — “Is this what they call ‘athleisure’ wear?” — but she’s quietly devastated. She’s had to go off her hormones, she cannot get the surgery, and now her body-shaping underwear and firmly feminine clothing feel like costumes. She was so anxious to get to a new version of herself, but now, she’s forced to accept that there’s no more transformation she can do. She has to accept who she is right now. Ali helps by giving a sincere prayer to the ocean to say good-bye to Maura’s “tight, terrible Spanx.” At the seder, Maura nevertheless makes clear that she’s still lost, and her identity is inextricably tied up with shame.
Here is the usual Sarah Pfefferman bit: She talks with a woman at one of the cruise bars, and the woman reveals that she and her husband enjoy swinging. Sarah calls Len and learns that the kids have a new pet turtle, and that Zack pooped all by himself at a play date. Thank goodness Zackie’s bowel issues got some resolution.
The family gathers together at this slapdash seder, the first one they’ve had since Maura and Aunt Bryna had the falling out in 1995, with Ali and Sarah pushing to make it meaningful. They eat the korech, Ali invokes the feminine spirit (“she who holds space”), and they try to mark the tradition of their people — “the Jewish people,” Ali shoots at Josh, pointedly. Rather than the traditional service, Ali and Sarah recommend that they share what each of them feels enslaved by. For Josh, this is too much. He leaves. Maura offers to go next, and stumbles through a wrenching oceanic metaphor for the vastness of her pain and fear.
And then, we reach Shelly’s big moment. Shelly, who kept her childhood abuse a secret throughout her life. Shelly, who loves her family, and who’s hurt that she cannot always understand them. Shelly, who has a hard out at 6:30 p.m. because curtain’s up at seven o’clock. Like all Shelly speeches, this could be played for straight laughs. Don’t get me wrong — the laughs are there. Even at the end, as she storms out of the room, Maura asks “…you get a gay with your room?” “Only on her level,” one of the Pfeffermans responds. But Shelly’s wearing no makeup, her voice is tremulous, and her feelings are unmistakably real. She has been left out of the family.
I tried to think about all of the things To Shell and Back could be, and mostly came up with something like a more Jewish version of “Buckle Up, I’m Patty” from Gilmore Girls. It does have those flavors. But it is completely sincere, beginning with Shelly’s opening monologue about being drawn to men with secrets and her own willful self-ignorance, all the way through to the moment when darkness falls and she begins singing a ballad-like, piano-backed version of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.”
Light’s performance carries it, imbuing Shelly’s voice with very slight hesitance, with commitment, with coyness and resolve and joy. She carries the song as if she’s Sinatra singing “My Way,” and the audience — Maura, Sarah, and Ali included — applaud enthusiastically. Meanwhile, somewhere at the back of the ship, Josh dumps Rita’s ashes into the churning wake.
The best Transparent moments happen when the family gathers together in celebration or in mourning. None of these characters are ever as complicated, as thoughtful, or as committed as they are when they’re together. It’s the only way any of them know how to operate; they are utterly reliant on their own byzantine family dynamics. Nothing else can ever satisfy them. And yes, this is a flaw in the series. In spite of the gesture in the season’s first episode, Transparent fumbles whenever it tries to acknowledge life outside the Pfefferman family — which means it fails to truly acknowledge life outside of white, liberal, affluent Los Angeles Judaism. Shea, Leslie, Davina, Vicky, Len, Pony, even Colton: None of them can puncture the Pfefferman bubble.
But when the show features these infrequent collisions of family, identity, nostalgia, trauma, and love, Transparent is astoundingly good. As a result, it’s hard to know what to want from further seasons. I’d love more Raquel. I’d love for Shea to be more than adventure tourism. I’d love for all of these characters to actually be in functional relationships with people whose last name has never been Pfefferman. If those things happen, though, Transparent will not be at its best. And if I’m being honest, I want nothing more than to see the Pfeffermans sitting around a table, arguing with each other in their family home.
Well, that and a front-row seat at To Shell and Back.