After watching the first few episodes of “Transparent” at my recommendation, my friend gave up: “I just couldn’t figure out what anybody wanted.”
And he’s right. “Transparent” is a show about desires that conflict with one another and often just combust entirely. Like most of the best shows, this Amazon Prime series about Maura Pfefferman, a former patriarch who reveals her transgender identity to her family, finds its heartbeat in the complexities of human experience.
The new season, out Sept. 23, is looking more polished than ever before. In the new trailer, all of the hair is straighter, the family table is more elegantly decorated, and everyone, even Ali, is honest and mature about what they want out of relationships and life. Rabbi Raquel summarizes it in the not-so-subtle last scene of the trailer: “The lesson is to be our best selves,” she says, holding a candle in the middle of a circle of solemn-looking Pfeffermans.
But the hints of cynicism that the show is known for are already starting to peek through. Shelly Pfefferman, Maura’s former wife and neurotic-Jewish-mother figure, excitedly tells her kids that she’s created a “social media name” (is that a thing now?): “To Shell and Back.” She pauses, gesturing wildly: “I’m a brand now!” Will all of these attempts at self-reformation end up as nothing but shallow branding tactics? Show-runner Jill Soloway isn’t one to settle for a neat and tidy self-improvement story, so it’s likely the question will be raised.
Time will tell what the new season will bring, so all that’s left to do while we wait is think back over the past two seasons, and, for those of you who haven’t yet watched it, take 10 hours and binge it before the 23rd. Here’s everything a “Transparent” novice ought to know before joining the Pfeffermans at their bagels-and-lox-filled table.
First, to those of you who struggled for the first few episodes but didn’t quite feel it: stick with the first season. The second one is well worth the payoff. The first season is certainly raw, and sometimes the messiness of the characters’ lives is shoved down our throats just a little too obviously to work. Some of the scenes between Maura’s children, in particular, felt like the constant whining that made “Girls” unwatchable for me. It’s a kind of headache-inducing pettiness that screams “We are self-indulgent millennials!” so loudly that watching it, you can forget to look at the complexities that led these people to this state in the first place. And the inner lives of the characters that “Transparent” has created are truly worthy of looking at, once you clear through the noise of some of those early scenes. By the fourth episode, I was hooked.
I’m trying to do this without spoilers (not that the plot developments are the real pull of the series), so I’ll offer a few more vague pearls of wisdom for the season one binge-watcher.
Tip 1: Take Ali seriously. It’s easy to cast her off as a stereotype of the young, confused millennial trying to find her identity in a gender studies class. And she is doing this, to some extent. But like all of Soloway’s characters, she works within and around the stereotype she seems to represent in moves so subtle that you might not notice them right away. Her remarkable emotional intelligence and the strength of her yearning to make sense of her family’s tumult comes into full view in the second season, when her journey culminates in an inter-generational dialogue with Maura’s transgender aunt in 1930s Berlin that is one of the most beautiful renderings of historical memory and inherited trauma that I’ve seen on TV.
Tip 2: Don’t panic if you feel frustrated with Maura sometimes. For those of us trying to be better allies to our trans* friends and peers, watching this show brings with it a desire to better understand the trans* experience, and I, for one, came into the show hoping to be bathed in empathy and compassion for Maura’s journey. But, of course, it is not meant to be this easy. Maura is a human being, and her desires and dreams aren’t always “pure.” The show helps reinforce the idea that transitioning is the act of an individual naming and claiming one’s own identity. And identities are messy and confusing and sometimes even a little ugly. From my own limited perspective, it seems that oversimplifying the trans* experience as one of moral perfection or heroism is more hurtful than helpful. Soloway reminds us that Maura’s life is a human life, filled with self-absorption and vanity and short tempers with her kids. Of course, one can also argue that whatever positive impact this might have in increasing societal acceptance of trans* people might be overshadowed by the issues that arise from a cis-gender male playing a trans* woman.
As for season two: all I can say is, enjoy. I watched the second season in a steady stream over a few days, and it all blends together in my memory as a beautiful, perfect thing. Season two feels simultaneously less comfortable and more cohesive than season one. The show does lots of double moves, harshly questioning values they had held up to be (at least somewhat) right and true in season one. But it also feels more purposeful and mature. Any frustration you may have felt with Maura and her family in season one is fleshed out and turned into smart, critical questions about the value system the show has set up. Also, look out for Alice Boman’s song, “Waiting,” at the end of season two, episode eight. You’ll know it when you see and hear it; it’s as close to perfect as a scene-soundtrack moment gets. That’s all the pontificating I’ll do; go forth and watch!