The Deeply Empathetic Humor of ‘Transparent’
Midway through the second season of Transparent, now streaming in full on Amazon, the Pfefferman clan celebrates Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year, a day for self-reflection, renewal, and making amends. “It’s kind of like trick-or-treating,” Sarah, the eldest Pfefferman child, explains to her ex. “You think about your wrongs, apologize, ask for forgiveness. And then you get forgiveness and you sort of absolve yourself.” It’s one of the funniest scenes of the season — Sarah is at peak Pfefferman — but it’s also a prime example of Transparent’s particular poetry: the Pfeffermans have a deep sense of the weight of history, of the existence of a world that’s bigger than they are, and yet they manage to remain, tragically (and comically), entirely focused on themselves.
Last season, Transparent centered squarely around Maura Pfefferman (the transcendent Jeffrey Tambor), a retired Berkeley professor who — after a lifetime of living unhappily as Mort — came out to her accepting but dysfunctional family, propelling her adult children, consciously or not, to question their own identities. Sarah (a sparkling Amy Landecker) spent the season leaving her husband for her college girlfriend; middle child Josh (Jay Duplass, spectacular), charismatic and stunted, embarked on what might be a functional adult relationship with rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn, also great); perpetual undergrad Ali (the electric Gaby Hoffman), the baby of the family who isn’t quite young enough to justify the state of her life, renegotiated her own sexuality; and Shelly (I was going to stop with the superlatives, but Judith Light is incredible here), Maura’s ex-wife and the family matriarch, became an unexpectedly supportive force. If last season was about Maura, this season is about the Pfeffermans together, because you can’t truly consider one Pfefferman without considering them all. (You also can’t truly interact with one Pfefferman without becoming ensnared in the family web — just ask rabbi Raquel.)
The Pfeffermans, individually and as a group, are so rich and well-constructed that every new revelation — and, for a family that spends so much time “just trying to be honest,” there are a shocking number of them this season — seems less like a disruption than a natural unfolding. Ali and Josh spend the season gesturing toward visions of what could become stable, adult lives, and then unravelling them, spinning each act of selfishness as a heroic gift, as though being honest about your own feelings absolves you of responsibility for anybody else’s. But while Josh and Ali seem to be getting it together, sort of, maybe, sometimes — as the season begins, he’s attempting domesticity and fatherhood with puppyish enthusiasm; she’s on the cusp of sustainable romance and professional ambitions — Sarah is falling apart. In the season opener, she marries Tammy in a gorgeous all-white Palm Springs wedding, then dumps her before they clear the last plate. She’s the last Pfefferman still devoted to what life should look like, and the one perpetually humiliated when it doesn’t. But it’s still Maura’s evolution — and particularly her evolving relationship with Shelley — that anchors the show.
Given the sheer amount of life cycle happening here, the show ought to feel implausibly over-the-top (I had not realized, until Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Jill Soloway pointed it out, that Josh has been one half of not one but three accidental pregnancies). But it doesn’t. Instead, it feels like life is really, really complicated.
One of the best things about Transparent is that it’s a comedy about a dysfunctional family without being a Dysfunctional Family Comedy. Everyone is difficult; no one is “quirky.” As head writer Bridget Bedard explains in the same New Yorker piece, “we’re making a comedy — or a ‘trauma-dy,’ we’ve started saying — and comedy comes from people being fallible.” It’s a deeply empathetic kind of humor. The Pfeffermans — narcissistic, boundaryless, in perpetual crisis — are just a little bit more heightened (and better written) than the rest of us, but their flaws, and the jokes that come from them, are fundamentally human. And, even more notably, this is true across the board: every last character, down to the car salesman Josh takes advantage of, seems to be a nuanced human with a probably-complicated story. Everyone is magnetic, infuriating, worth loving, if not necessarily lovable. Perhaps as a result, the writing has the miraculous feeling of being totally unconstructed, as though no decisions were made, as though these characters couldn’t be any other way than exactly as they are.
Which doesn’t mean the show isn’t interested in how they got that way. The first season had regular flashbacks to the family circa 1994, the year that Ali refused to have her bat mitzvah, and Maura — then Mort — spent a pivotal weekend at a camp for male crossdressers where she didn’t fit in the way she thought she would. (Transparent has an almost Shakespearian interest in transformative experiences in the woods; this time, it’s a ground-shifting trip to Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival.) In keeping with the show’s ever-expanding scope, this season we go back another two generations, to the lives of Maura’s mother and trans aunt in sexually liberated Weimar Berlin. Recasting actors from last season — Emily Robinson, who played young Ali, is now a young Grandma Rose; Mel Shimkovitz, her bat mitzvah caterer, has become a sort of Cabaret-style emcee — gives these flashbacks a dreamlike quality. They’re less dramatically effective than the ’94 version (or the rest of the show), but also riskier, experimenting not only with style but with the idea that the forces that propel our lives aren’t entirely in our control. Back in the present day, Ali may be figuring this out: “Did you know there is such a thing as inherited trauma in your actual DNA?” she asks.
Questions of identity, about what makes us who we are, about what’s fixed and what can change, have always been at the center of the show. And this season, Transparent — hilarious, devastating, emotionally draining (much like family, really) — digs even deeper, and the Pfeffermans are more intoxicating with each new detail.