'Transparent' Season 2: TV Review

Transparent - H 2015
Courtesy of Amazon
Amazon's groundbreaking series is back for a triumphant second season.

Season 2 of Jill Soloway's loving portrait of a trans woman and her fractious family is as brilliant, complicated, exquisitely detailed and surprising as ever.

The opening scenes of the first episode of Transparent season two are a lovely collage of reminders: of how much this show has been missed (which in turn is a reminder of how great and fresh it was in season one); what a relentlessly clanging, idiosyncratic mess the Pfefferman family is; what a wonderful, under-appreciated director Jill Soloway is; and at last — the exclamation point — what a magnificent actor Jeffrey Tambor is. Then there are the reminders of how everyone in the cast (even the more fringe members) bring their A game to every scene. Finally, it all circles back again to Soloway as a writer and everything she has made manifest with the creation of this series.

That’s a pretty impressive cavalcade of light-bulb moments that any series would be proud of. And they all happen immediately in the Transparent season two cold-open. It’s a wide-angle shot that doesn’t move — characters walk into and out of the frame.  Palm Springs is the setting and everyone is in white for the wedding of Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy (Melora Hardin), which transports the series from an all-black funeral at the end of season one to an all-white wedding in season two, a very brief feint suggesting that perhaps the show can exhale, that things are going to be a little bit different going forward after so much angsty, emotional carnage last season.

Ah, but this Transparent and you should know better by now. Calm and normal is not what this show does. And yet, hell, there’s even something comfortably welcoming in being reminded that, as a viewer, you’re about to jump back on the Pfefferman family crazy train.

Part of the brilliance of Transparent is that it’s a series that defies summing up with broad strokes; it's all about the myriad tiny moments that add up to the collective drama. We know that the central story in season one was the transition of Mort to Maura (Tambor) and how this late-in-life awakening shined a light on all the other issues going on with the Pfefferman kids — the intriguing, often difficult evolutions in their own private lives playing out as less-pronounced, less eye-opening changes compared to Maura's. 

Soloway’s ability as a writer and director to capture the nuances of a family in flux — a family whose members' own searching is amplified by one very big change at the center of it all — is masterful, and gives Transparent its delightful depth. Maura's bold transformation is as much a personal triumph as it is a catalyst for the rest of her family. 

And season two proves almost immediately that this family, shaken up and set in motion, continues to hurdle forward even now that Maura is fully out and the family is both fully aware and fully supportive. This continued propulsion is immediately evidenced by the wedding — an event, not surprisingly, primed for both implosion and explosion (and both happen). But while the big reveals are exciting and dramatic and something for Soloway to build the rest of (or most of) the season around, it continues to be Soloway's mastery of little things — the idiosyncracies of her characters and their world — that make this series so special and fuels its emotional intensity.

While change is an ongoing, immense theme of Transparent, families have a way of insistently pulling themselves back to the dynamics that have always been. And it's against this backdrop of habit and the comfort of the familiar that the individual Pfeffermans struggle to evolve their individual selves. For instance, Josh (Jay Duplass) should know that he can’t tell sister Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) a big secret and expect her to keep it. Maura can’t expect that the outside world has changed at the pace of her insular one. Sarah can’t expect instant happiness after plowing under her old life. If Transparent has taught us anything, it’s that happiness and contentment are elusive destinations and that the pursuit of them is often full of heartbreak. The pursuit of happiness doesn't happen in a vacuum. Change is a game of dominoes.

In the world of Transparent, this personal searching can often be frustrating and overly-dramatic; there is a certain kind of emotional carnage that the Pfeffermans both create and endure with annoying consistency. This show is not for everyone, but those who stuck with the journey in season one are the core of the fan base that will return for season two, eager to jump back into that carnage. While Maura’s storyline continues to be the engine that drives the train (she will struggle with the intangibles of her decision — the small considerations things subsumed in the bold act of her transformation), all of the baggage of Sarah, Josh and Ali will be on board. Shelly's (Judith Light) journey also grows more interesting this season.

At a glance, the travails of the Pfefferman family — not even counting Maura — are the kind of potentially soapy froth that would make Downton Abbey or Scandal jealous: there's the surprise revelation that Josh is a father; Ali is really in love with a woman who slept with her brother (and she thus tries to sabotage her brother’s newfound stability); Sarah’s sexual fluidity seems less of a meaningful personal search than some kind of selfish boredom that blows up whatever side she chooses; and the secrets and wall-building done by both parents has led to often calamitous emotional fall-out for the children.

But the ability of this amazing collection of actors to take Soloway’s plots and dialogue and keep it all grounded in a realism that seems plausible, harrowing, funny and touching is at least one element of the magical recipe that makes Transparent work, that sets the series apart.

In season two, Transparent is impressively still in command of that volatile mix, delivering episodes that have heightened fallout but are dealt with in intimate, personal, often low-key scenarios. It’s as if Soloway and her writing staff roll a bunch of grenades (starting with the first episode) into the Transparent universe and the Pfeffermans and friends just fall on them, absorbing the impact without turning the series into Empire meets Grey’s Anatomy. This is how the painful, unfair, difficult — and yes, sometimes beautiful, happy and memorable — moments of real life are processed in the real world. Clinging to that standard of realism while also allowing for the idiosyncrasies, flaws and challenging traits of the characters is what allows Soloway and Transparent to deliver so many emotional truths with such subtle power.

It’s wonderful to have it back.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine