'Transparent' Season 3: TV Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
More of Maura Pfefferman can never be a bad thing.

Jill Soloway's treasure of a series about the extended family of a transgender retiree played by Jeffrey Tambor returns for what promises to be an exceptional third season.

Maybe this is going out on a limb based on only the first three episodes premiering in the Toronto Film Festival's Primetime section devoted to serial television, but season three of Jill Soloway's groundbreaking Transparent may turn out to be its funniest and most soulful yet. The head-on collision of self-absorbed entitlement with yearning solitude that has defined the fractious Pfeffermen clan from the start still sets off sparks of merciless hilarity, but it's the poignancy of their interconnected dysfunction that makes the show so compelling.

It's not giving away a major plot point to reveal that in episode three, To Sardines and Back — directed by Soloway, who co-wrote it with her sister Faith — a forgotten childhood pet tortoise that belonged to Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) resurfaces after living in the ventilation shafts of the family's Pacific Palisades home for 30 years.

In a surreal pre-titles sequence that starts in 1992, we watch this resilient creature seeming to watch the house's occupants through the air ducts over the years while Marc Bolan croons the aptly chosen T. Rex classic, "Life is Strange." When the tortoise is discovered during the 70th birthday celebrations for patriarch-turned-matriarch Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), it's clear that not one member of the family would have lasted even a fraction of that time alone.

When Transparent premiered on Amazon in 2014, right out of the gate it was something unique, even in today's ever-expanding landscape of boundary-pushing television. The writing was richly specific in terms of its milieu and characters — an affluent Jewish Los Angeles family — and Soloway's personal investment in the story, inspired by her own father's transgender emergence, gave it empathy and authenticity that were amplified in Tambor's quietly heroic and infinitely nuanced performance.

I'll confess that while I never considered checking out of the addictive show, the extent to which the Pfeffermans' individual and collective abrasiveness engulfed their vulnerabilities in season two made me wonder if Transparent was edging too close to comedy-of-awkwardness satire. And I wasn't alone in finding the detours into the gay subculture of Weimar-era Berlin a distracting bridge too far into the history of a family whose exploration of gender identity and sexual fluidity has deep roots. But in the early episodes of season three at least, the distant past has made way for the near past to illuminating effect.

This season's opener could not be more different from the season two debut. That episode began with the white wedding of Sarah and Tammy (Melora Hardin, absent so far this time around), and the Pfeffermans' inability even to pose for a harmonious family photo foreshadowed the short expiration date on that union. By contrast, season three opens with resurgent notes of spirituality and self-doubt, as Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) prepares an especially probing sermon, while Maura, supported by her family and in a loving relationship with Vicki (Anjelica Huston), wonders: "I've got everything I need. So why am I so unhappy?"

Two of the many reasons for fans to rejoice here are the return of the peerless Hahn, since Raquel had her heart broken by Joshie but is still very much in the family's lives; and the promise of an expanded presence for Vicki, played by Huston with the weathered command of a tough cowgirl who knows exactly who she is. There's also an intriguing new character in Elizah (Alexandra Grey), a troubled African-American trans woman who sets Maura on a messy mission to help when she calls the LGBT crisis line. Another new addition that shows promise is Raquel's former seminary chum and new cantor (Kobi Libii).

Maura's grown children all appear to be examining their lives and choices in fresh ways. Josh has lost all passion for his music-industry job, retreating into a more private place. And is that a glimmer in episode three of a potentially radical new love interest for him in Shea (Trace Lysette), the gorgeous trans pal of Maura's soul sister Davina (Alexandra Billings)? Ali's fellow gender studies teachers open her eyes to the fact that she may not hold such a special place for her new love, feminist academic guru Leslie (Cherry Jones). And that character seems likely to be the source of more of the show's audacious examination of the feminist movement's uneasy relationship to trans women.

In the most tartly amusing thread, Sarah, now living platonically with ex-husband Len (Rob Huebel), decides she can make a spiritual contribution by joining the board at Raquel's temple, though her "dark energy" proves problematic. Sarah also continues to explore her taste for punishment with an S&M sex worker, though the fact that even having her naked butt lashed can't curb her egocentric logorrhea defeats the purpose. Landecker also has a killer rant in which she lets loose about Len's young girlfriend by comparing millennials to the monsters in Jurassic Park.

Also priceless is Judith Light as Maura's ex-wife Shelly. Her Temple Talk about her personal journey ("I have emerged from the swamp pit of mishegoss") is such a hit, drawing comparison to Streisand, that she seems set on turning it into a one-woman show and becoming a voice for countless women. She and her new partner Buzzie (Richard Masur) are now sporting biker leatherwear, while Shelly has also embraced social media, using the handle @ToShellAndBack. Never one to let a moment be about someone else, Shelly declares at Maura's party, "I'm transitioning too!"

Tambor's Maura remains the beautiful heavy heart of the show, and the actor has rarely been better than in the season's opening episodes, when she's taken ill and is hospitalized — the horror! — at L.A. County, demanding to be airlifted to Cedars Sinai. The misspelled name and misidentified gender on Maura's medical chart, as well as the doctor's obstinate use of male pronouns, underscore that her struggle for recognition is ongoing. And her announcement that she intends to begin exploring options for gender confirmation surgery threatens to make waves as the series continues, possibly weighing on her relationship with Vicki.

Orbiting around Tambor like luminous satellites, all the core cast inhabit their characters with a funny-sad complexity that seems only to have deepened. The ensemble's superb chemistry is what gives this show's portrait of family life — at its most volatile but also at its softest, when fondness unexpectedly pierces selfishness or anger — its extraordinarily lived-in quality of emotional verisimilitude.

The use of music, as always, is perfection, with Dustin O'Halloran's melancholy piano theme striking ravishing tonal notes particularly in the season opener. In that same episode, fabulous use is made of Nina Simone's mournful version of "Ne Me Quitte Pas," but it's a safe bet that nobody thus far hooked on Transparent is going to abandon it. Besides, what other show will give you a game-show fantasy where the contestants include Caitlyn Jenner and Ntozake Shange?

Cast: Jeffrey Tambor, Anjelica Huston, Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Cherry Jones, Rob Huebel, Alexandra Billings, Trace Lysette, Alexandra Grey, Kathryn Hahn, Richard Masur, Kobi Libii
Created by Jill Soloway
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Primetime)
Premieres: All 10 episodes streaming from Sept. 23 (Amazon Prime)