Last year, Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama Transparent debuted on Amazon looking like nothing else on TV. There was the transgender central character, of course; a feature not unheard of for television (i.e. Orange Is the New Black, Sense8, etc.), yet not exactly commonplace. But beyond the show’s gender politics, Transparent stood out for its unique narrative style. Embodying the term “comedy-drama” in the best sense, Season One combined some of the year’s funniest scenes (Ali’s “spit roast” sequence comes to mind) with rich characters and heartbreaking plot arcs. Told through measured pacing which never felt rushed yet always managed to make the episodes fly, the season created a well-developed and moving portrayal of an L.A. family.
Season Two enriches that portrait even further, bringing an even greater sense of intimacy to our relationship with the Pfeffermans and their associates while simultaneously broadening the show’s ambitions and scope. Building on the impressive groundwork laid by Season One, the first half of the new season provides a closer look at the trials and tribulations of the Pfefferman clan and also zooms out, giving Transparent both an emotional claustrophobia and a wide canvas.
The renewed feeling of closeness becomes clear from the teaser of the first episode, “Kina Hora,” a oner depicting a family photo during Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy’s (Melora Hardin) wedding. The length of the take contrasts with the rapid-fire editing of Season One, grabbing the viewer’s attention and setting a different tone for the new season. Long takes are too often used poorly, but this one has a clear intention and effect: to bring the viewer inside the wedding, unhindered by formal obstructions.
The teaser also sets up an intense and powerful episode in which a couple of the season’s main plot arcs are introduced. At the party following the ceremony, Sarah sits in the bathroom questioning the marriage, at which point Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) informs her that it’s not too late for Sarah to back out. Raquel has her own conflicts, meanwhile, wanting to keep her and Josh’s (Jay Duplass) pregnancy a secret and struggling with his need to inform the family.
Amidst the Pfefferman drama, there’s a striking flashback to a transgender party in ‘30s Berlin, a move surprising for this otherwise tightly knit series. Although the show only returns to the parallel story once more in the season’s first half (the exposition heavy but still noteworthy scene in “Cherry Blossom”), the scenes suggest a wealth of possibilities. Even what little the show teases of the secondary narrative suggests an evocative world filled with compelling characters. On top of that, the story puts Maura’s struggles in perspective, contextualizing the challenges she faces while not essentializing her based on her identity.
Most impressive, the scenes don’t distract from everything else going on in Transparent’s crowded (but not overly so) second season. Ali’s (Gaby Hoffmann) budding relationship with Syd (Carrie Brownstein) particularly stands out, with scenes such as their bowling alley make-out in “New World Coming” establishing their growing affection for one another. Sarah heads in the opposite direction, as her feuds with Tammy and Len (Rob Huebel) leave her more and more isolated. She reaches an emotional nadir in the tag of “Cherry Blossom,” eating microwaved food alone late at night in her kitchen. It’s a powerful image, sad and true-to-life.
Amidst the tangle of Season Two, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) continues to shine, in part due to Tambor’s humanistic and affecting performance. Her struggle to reconcile with Shelly (Judith Light) makes for a particularly captivating story arc, showing how the challenges of her identity affect not only her but those around her. Maura’s journey of self-fulfillment wears both on herself and those who love her, and the show does an impressive job of showing the effects of her transition on those around her without blaming anyone.
It’s this even-handed touch that makes Transparent among the most sensitive and emotional shows on TV. In the first half of Season Two, the show works from the impressive blueprint laid out by Season One to create an even more in-depth portrayal of the Pfeffermans and, at the same time, cast a broader net.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.