There has always been something so uniquely striking about Jill Soloway’s TRANSPARENT. It is a show so immensely built around character and at the same time grounded in an individual moment. While some episodes follow a typical narrative structure, others meander outside the format, focusing on the emotionally terse and gorgeously filmed moments that shape the entire season. Season three has only gone further in this direction, on singling out what is important to the characters and focusing and shaping that in any way the medium allows.
The third season of Transparent continues to tell the story of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), her transition, the rest of the self-destructing Pfeffermans. Each season manages to make all five of the core Pfeffermans even more toxic and destructive. What is so incredible about Transparent however, is that we somehow want these people to be happy. In the first episode, “Elizah,” Maura laments that she has everything she could have wanted, but is desperately unhappy. This feeling hits home and gives the audience such sympathy for Maura. However, the same episode revolves around how Maura benefits so immensely from white privilege that she can’t spend a day in south LA without literally being hospitalized.
Transparent never allows Maura’s being to trans to cancel out any selfishness that the character has. She is not given sainthood because she is trans, merely a lot of nuance to how self-centered she is. In that sense, Maura joins her ex-wife and children on being just on the line of reprehensible but never quite falling over it. Even so, there are still moments that make the audience ache for these characters to be happy. This season, Josh’s (Jay Duplass) story is filled with him saying or doing the wrong thing, but the payoff shows his desperation for any kind of connection, and how much he wants to be part of a family.
In a bold and brilliant move, after two seasons of almost exclusively focusing on the Pfeffermans, Transparent has expanded its family to include a few others. The major standout is Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), who is finally promoted to a regular cast member. Hahn’s acting is potentially the best that television has seen this year. She exudes a tangible sadness while remaining strong to her core beliefs and who she is. While in the previous season, she was mainly included as Josh’s girlfriend, she gets to stand on her own now. Much of her story is focused on her relationship with Sarah (Amy Landecker) and how much Sarah’s flaky spirituality contrasts with her own. Raquel is one of the only characters on Transparent who is an undeniably good person, in contrast to all the other leads. Due to excellent writing, and Hahn’s grounded reality, this morality never makes her less interesting; it simply makes us want her to be happy all the more.
Another breakout character of season three is Shea (Trace Lysette), who has briefly appeared earlier as one of the trans women Maura had found as a community. Her storyline this season allows us to see Shea separate from Maura, and instead how she relates to Josh. This storyline shows how complex and painful even a flirtation can be between a trans woman and cis man. The sixth episode, “The Open Road,” contains a sequence between the two at an abandoned water park that is perhaps the most beautiful scene in the whole season. The way the scene is filmed combine with Duplass and Lysette’s performances makes it almost hard to watch, but impossible to look away from it. Suffice to say, if there was an Emmy category for “yelling at the Pfeffermans,” both Lysette and Hahn would walk away with awards.
That feeling of combined dread and fascination is one that Transparent often comes back to. The entire eighth episode, “If I Were a Bell,” is set in Maura and Shelly’s (Judith Light) youth and it’s simply heartbreaking. Watching Maura as a young girl get her identity essentially crushed out of her is a hard but phenomenal piece of filmmaking. Showing the tragedy of trans youth in 1958 is just another way Transparent introduces new character elements that inform the present day. The episode also gives tragic backstory to Shelly, who has often been played off as the comic relief of the show. Though Shelly still gets to give Jewish mother epitaphs, she gains a depth this season that was unseen before. She grounds the season finale, and provides the surprisingly poignant moment that ends the season.
The depth of characters like Shea, Shelly, and Raquel truly shows that Transparent ages almost as well as Judith Light. These characters and the rest of the Pfeffermans round out a drama that can serve as a gender studies course, an emotional journey, or a character study. Each shot of season three of Transparent contributes to this, created a breathtaking tapestry of film. This show is changing and growing just as much as its characters, and we are simply along for the ride.
Raina spends most of her time watching television and trying to find the perfect bagel and lox, because she likes being emotionally distraught.
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Raina Deerwater | Contributor