Amazon Studios

Transparent: A Welcome, If Familiar, Return For The Pfeffermans

Jill Soloway's groundbreaking, acclaimed series returns for a new season that can't quite reach the dizzying heights of last year

Even when we were meeting the Pfeffermans for the first time in Season 1, Transparent has often felt like revisiting a family album and seeing the pictures inside with a new perspective. Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) coming out as a trans woman shook the earth under her family’s feet. After the more immediate aftershocks — the reactions of confusion, disbelief, understanding, and acceptance — came the feelings of unsettledness, of being left to wonder how Maura’s (necessarily) hidden secret had affected her children’s formative years and their sense of selves.

Jill Soloway’s dizzyingly ambitious second season reached back further in the Pfeffermans’ German-Jewish lineage to suggest how queerness and trauma made up some of the double helixes in their DNA (and, more broadly, to reframe the Holocaust as a genocide of both Jews and sexual minorities). In some ways, Season 2 felt even more visionary than the historic milestone achieved in Season 1, i.e., the creation of probably the first mainstream drama with a trans protagonist. That Transparent’s third season — premiering today on Amazon, fresh off its three Emmy wins (for Tambor, Soloway’s directing, and its production design) — feels like a hangover from last year’s events seems more like a credit to Season 2 than anything else.

I had high hopes for the new season, since Transparent has been my favorite show for the last two years. It’s still very much the same series: Rawly felt, cuttingly observant, progressively earnest, devastatingly hilarious or playful or sexy when it wants to be. But an undertow of stagnancy has seeped into Season 3, with several story lines making little progress and the show’s once-thrilling specificity congealing into tiresome insularity. A new theme, about the fragile bonds that hold together spiritual communities, unfurls with mixed results. The Pfeffermans are some of the most compellingly unlikable characters on TV. But for the first time, I don’t care to spend any more time with a couple of them.

Maura, as usual, is the one we never seem to get enough time with. A fainting episode in the season premiere leads her to carpe the fucking diem, which in her case means exploring her surgical options above and below the waist. “Dad’s pussy,” Maura’s kids say to one another, trying to get used to the idea. There’s plenty of important social critique packed into Maura’s contemplating the gender-confirmation procedure, like the required sign-off by a psychologist. “You’re gonna be so fish [i.e., resembling a cis-woman],” Maura’s told by a cis boyfriend of her gal pal (Alexandra Billings), who proceeds to mansplain what La Pfefferman should tell her shrink. But the prospect of a new her is more interesting for how it relates to Maura’s thoughts on mortality, her class privilege, and her relationships with her new girlfriend, Vicki (Anjelica Huston), and her ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light).

One of the changes Maura wants to make after her health crisis is to stop being called “Moppa,” but simply “mom” or “grandma.” Shelly can’t say no, but she visibly bristles, especially as she feels increasingly invisible within her own family and takes bigger and louder actions to make sure her kids notice her in ways that only make them dismiss her even faster. In the best episode of Season 3 (the eighth installment), the show returns to revealing the different layers of the palimpsest that is the Pfeffermans’ history in a ’50s-set half-hour about the distinctly Jewish conservatism that defined Maura and Shelly’s childhoods. It’s a gleeful yet guilty glimpse into a moment when the young couple embraced each other because they were both willing to break the rules to grab something for themselves. Shelly doesn’t know it, but Maura clearly takes inspiration from his ex-wife when he tells his son, “I am a Jewish woman, Joshy, and Jewish women do whatever the fuck they want.”

In contrast to previous generations, the Pfeffermans now live in a land of milk and honey. It’s a new day — a fact Maura and Shelly feel more keenly than their kids because they don’t have very many left. But it feels like more of the same for their adult children, partly because they’re still reeling from the ways they’ve blown up their lives, and partly because they don’t do very much this season except wallow in the debris. Sisters Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) find themselves in open relationships that aren’t working for them in retreads from Season 2 story lines. The decision for a greater role for fan favorite Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), who almost joined the Pfefferman clan last year, is a great one, but Soloway spends too much time on a petty squabble about who does and doesn’t get to join the temple board. Just as on-point but much more entertaining is the mutually self-righteous war of words between temple members and Ali’s anti-Zionist academic girlfriend (Cherry Jones).

Maura’s gender identity isn’t the only secret to haunt the Pfeffermans; Josh’s (Jay Duplass) teenage affair with his much-older babysitter, Rita (Brett Paesel) — and his recent discovery of his adopted-away child, Colton (Alex MacNicoll) — have further unmoored the characters from what they thought their family was. A sudden tragedy sends Josh reeling for the first escape he can find in a development that’s affecting, and yet not that different from where he’s been the last two seasons. Watching his son from half a country away, Josh does what the Pfeffermans do best — breaks our hearts — as he witnesses the boy preacher evince the sense of rock-hard certainty only a teenager can feel.