In the second season of Transparent, Amazon’s Emmy-winning series about the ever-changing relationships of a newly out transgender woman and her family, no one knows what they want. Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), is confronted by a host of surgical and hormonal options for her transition, doesn’t know what she wants to do with her body. Sarah (Amy Landecker) is aimless (and increasingly horny) after calling off her marriage to Tammy (Melora Hardin). Josh (Jay Duplass) and Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) know what they want for themselves, but can’t figure out how to align as a couple. And Ali (Gaby Hoffman) doesn’t know how she wants to express her newly discovered queer identity. There’s even a subplot told via flashbacks of 1933 Berlin, about the struggles of a trans woman named Gittel (Hari Nef) and her younger sister during the rise of the Third Reich.
Though it’s frequently painful to watch the Pfeffermans say the wrong things while slogging through life under the weight of their uncertainties, creator Jill Soloway’s construction of their journey—the way she navigates us through the sticky web of their lives—is as confident as its characters aren’t. She allows nothing to linger, and keeps the narrative and its mix of uproarious and dramatic subplots chugging steadily forward throughout all 10 episodes. And every performance (Hahn and Landecker, specifically) suggests the cast’s total commitment to their characters.
Exploring the existential problems of white, financially stable and highly educated Los Angeles residents could have easily been a nauseating ordeal. But what keeps Transparent from inspiring the perpetual eyeroll it might have is an inescapable feeling of authenticity and commitment to offering the perspectives of people who aren’t cis het men. Not only did Soloway’s moppa act as an inspiration for the character of Maura, Soloway herself recently “came out” in The New Yorker, revealing her relationship with Eileen Myles in a way that bears a striking resemblance to Ali’s self-discovery and eventual relationship with a poet played by Cherry Jones. And, though there is something non-ignorable and, frankly, embarrassing about the show’s lack of racial diversity, it does plenty to offer the perspectives of women, queer people, sex workers, and other marginalized groups of people who are often targets for hatred. There are real voices in this show, and each one sounds familiar.
Cultural commentary on marginalization and broad comedy do not always mix. Netflix’s Master of None—a show I liked, but didn’t love—also attempts to use the half-hour comedic format as a vehicle to highlight what’s normally underrepresented. But Master of None feels like what it is, which is a product co-created by a standup comedian. It relied on overly written, didja-ever-notice dialogue to make its points. Every thought was verbalized, every opinion explained. In contrast, Transparent’s most insightful moments are often wordless, and are rarely accompanied by laughter. That doesn’t mean the show—classified by the Emmys and Golden Globes as a comedy—isn’t funny, just that its humor is coming from people too preoccupied with their own personal dramas to realize they’re making anyone else laugh.
At the end of this season’s penultimate episode, its two timelines converge in an explosive, dialogue-free montage that is among the most powerful, emotionally draining moments of the show’s 20 episodes. Through a series of imagined glances between Ali, Rose, and Gittel—in a scene that literally superimposes the past on the present—we understand the link the episode is making between knowing one’s self and knowing one’s history. Most powerful is that Soloway never even says the words.
Unlike the Pfeffermans themselves, Jill Soloway’s Transparent is a show that knows when to shut up. And a result, no TV series I’ve ever seen has ever tackled the subjects of identity, love, and desire with such gentle profundity and hope. Honest-to-god hope. Every episode feels important, and every character human. Every moment feels lived. What I used to think was a beautiful little show about a frequently irritating Los Angeles family has become something bigger: a story about the burdensome miracle of being alive.
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Image via screengrab.