tv review

Transparent’s Second Season Is a Stunning Take on Human Existence

Photo: Amazon

When we last saw the Pfeffermans, they were sitting around the dining-room table, gingerly welcoming Josh’s son, the corn-fed Colton, into the fold; they forlornly scooped coleslaw for one another and tried to be less miserable. Season two of Jill Soloway’s dreamy masterpiece picks up not long after, at Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy’s (Melora Hardin) high-end but disastrous wedding. Whereas season one set each of our characters up, season two is spent kicking them around; after all the major steps the characters took in season one, this season is a reverting back to normal. Or “normal.” Where season one was about gender and gender identity, season two is more about sex and sexuality. Everything that was a big part of the first season is back, but more: The show’s loose fantasy boundaries are even more permeable, the Judaism is more present, everyone’s worst trait is more squarely front-and-center, the primacy of the sibling bonds more exclusionary. The winky pokes at academia poke harder. The flashbacks flash farther back.

The ten episodes break into two parts pretty neatly, with episodes one through six driven in part by one narrative, and seven through ten moving in their own arc. Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) sits in an astronomy class early in episode two, and the professor poetically notes, “What you are looking at is the past.” Over and over in the season, we’re looking at the past: Oh, this is your psychic wound, and this is how you’ve been treating (or not treating) it for your whole life. Ali winds up investigating some of her actual ancestry, and the show has a whole evocative subplot set in 1930s Germany; Ali in particular sees herself as an inheritor of a queer legacy. But she’s not the only one looking at the past. Josh (Jay Duplass) is grappling with the fact that he has a teenage son whose existence is a surprise to him; Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn, the actual best) doesn’t understand why Josh and his family don’t and won’t see his former babysitter as a rapist. Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and Shelly (Judith Light) have been divorced for decades, but they still have a bond; sometimes that bond is healthy, and sometimes less so. We see Maura try to reckon with her own childhood photos. Sarah grapples with her ideas of kink and eroticism, some of which were formed when she was in high school. Maura’s confronted with some of the sexist behavior from her life as Mort, and she doesn’t respond well.

Actually, a lot of the stories in season two are about Maura not responding well. Selfishness and self-absorption were major themes of the show from the outset, and they’re more pronounced here than ever. Maura finds herself at a dance club with Davina (Alexandra Billings) and winds up literally dancing with her own reflection in the mirror. Maura doesn’t like Davina’s boyfriend and rudely tells her so, and then is completely shocked when Davina tells her to shove it. Shelly’s overwhelming fear of being alone and abandoned means she thinks everything that happens is a referendum on her selfhood; other people are suffering at her. Sarah inherited some of this panicked self-aggrandizement from both sides.

Transparent’s categorization as a comedy for Emmy-voting purposes seems even less accurate this season, although there are many funny lines. Jason Mantzoukas returns as the pot-peddling doctor. Cherry Jones plays Leslie, a hotshot poet/professor/lesbian icon with whom Ali finds herself enthralled. When asked what she teaches, Leslie brags, “I don’t really teach; I talk about the things I care about to people who are ready.” Maura, Sarah, and Ali go to a women’s music festival and have a hilarious sing-along in the car on the way there. (The story arc covers the transphobic “women born women” policies of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Funny and topical!) When Maura considers plastic surgery, her doctor asks if she’d like breasts. “Two, please,” she says.

There are plenty of light moments. And there are also plenty of moments about the actual Holocaust. Not a lot of shows weave together goofy car rides and genocides, but Transparent is able to, well, transition between these and other ideas and themes by driving at a fundamental set of questions, specifically: For example, how did I get this body of mine, and what does it mean to have it? What’s a body, and, in particular, what is a female body? Over and over this season, we see women’s naked bodies presented not as objects but as statements of fact: This is a body, this is a body, this is a body. We see Ali and Sarah’s blank stares as they get aggressive, slap-oriented massages, and we see risqué burlesque shows in Weimar Germany. What are you supposed to do with this weird bag of bones you have to lug around everywhere? These thoughts permeate the season, with everything from the pros and cons of gender-affirmation surgeries to the ins and outs, so to speak, of low-key kink spankings and whippings. My back aches, I’m hot, I have a rash, will you rub my feet, that belly-flop into the pool really stung. Physical pain is one important thing we do with our bodies. And sexual pleasure is another. “I love women,” Maura announces in one scene. “I love every part of them. From head to … vagina.” (Sorry, legs.) It’s a striking line from someone who, clearly, doesn’t believe that gender and genitals are synonymous. And yet Maura doesn’t quite know what to say it is she loves about women in particular. What is “every part” of a woman? Head to vagina can’t possibly be the answer.

As before, the show’s visual language, and in particular its real-estate pornography, sets everything at just a little more beautiful than reality. Just a sliver. The music, both the score and the soundtrack, is perfect, and the costuming, particularly on Ali, helps the show depict the day-to-day aspects of gender performance.

The Pfeffermans all struggle with scarcity, which is ironic given their clear wealth. But each of them worries that there won’t be enough for him or her: If she falls in love, there won’t be enough time left for her to love me. If he gets to be successful, there won’t be enough success left over for me. If she gets to redefine herself, I should get to redefine myself, too, lest there not be enough redefining to go around. If you get rid of too much old junk, you won’t have anything to show for yourself. They’re wrong, of course — there’s plenty of everything, love and pain and acceptance and failure, more than any one person could possibly contain. And that’s what Transparent reminds us of, and what the show is for. There’s too much suffering and too much joy and too much of the past and too much to do, and the only way for any of it to make sense of any of it is to do so together.

Transparent’s Second Season Is Stunning