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Transparent season 2 is the best TV show of the year

The Amazon dramedy pushes into even richer territory than it did in its inaugural season.

Shelly (Judith Light, left) and Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) celebrate the wedding of their oldest daughter on Transparent.
Shelly (Judith Light, left) and Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) celebrate the wedding of their oldest daughter on Transparent.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Transparent's second season is the best television of the year.

I do not say this lightly. As my upcoming "best TV shows of 2015" list will reveal, this has been a tremendous year for the medium, in formats dramatic, comedic, and otherwise. Networks I've never paid attention to in the past got into the game in a big way, while the rise of streaming brought must-see new series to both Netflix and Hulu.



And yet when I finished watching the season two finale of Transparent, there was no question. This was it. The best TV show I'd seen all year. For as much as I loved season one — and I loved season one — season two was an improvement in every way, small and lovely and achingly resonant.

In its second season, Transparent moved beyond its still-vital premise — which centers on a Los Angeles family whose father, Maura (played by the tremendous Jeffrey Tambor), is gender transitioning — to offer a much nervier look at the state of America today. But it never once becomes a polemic. It's about an age when it feels like old walls are tumbling down, only to be replaced by new ones. It's about how hard it can be to put the past behind us. And it pulls off something I've seen many shows attempt but no show really nail until right now, which makes it even more special.

Of course, to talk about that, I'm going to have to spoil the whole season. So beware: If you haven't finished it yet, stop reading now. And for God's sake, get to Amazon and watch it!

Here's what Transparent does that I've never seen a TV show succeed at before

The cut in Transparent.
Cutting from 2015 Los Angeles all the way back to 1933 Berlin.

There have been plenty of TV series, novels, and films over the years that attempt to situate the lives of a regular family amid the epic sweep of history, positioning them both as part of the continuum of human civilization and separate from it. This is true to how most of us experience life; we're aware of the big things happening around us, but until those things directly reach into our lives, we tend to feel like islands apart from them.

This kind of storytelling is much easier to manage when the characters separated from history are living concurrent to it. Think, for instance, of how the characters in Mad Men rarely took note of the world-changing events swirling around them, but the show clued you in just enough for you to know that, say, Don was mostly ignoring the "I have a dream" speech on his radio.

It gets trickier when you want to blend the past and the present, when you want to tell a story about people living in modern society who are, nonetheless, affected by things that happened in the past, often to their own family members. The most successful stories of this ilk tend to have strong thematic or genre links between time periods — like how The Godfather Part II tells the story of the same mob family across two generations.

That leaves Transparent with a tricky row to hoe. Its genre — light dramedy — doesn't exactly suggest history's epic sweep. And its storytelling style so far hasn't really let in the world at large, beyond the simple fact that Transparent's mere existence has become part of a growing movement of understanding of the trans experience in the United States. But that's not part of the show; it's something that exists outside of it.

So when the season two premiere cuts from Sarah Pfefferman's wedding in 2015 Los Angeles to people dancing in 1933 Berlin, there's every reason to be anxious — even though director (and creator and showrunner) Jill Soloway and editor Catherine Haight perfectly match-cut between present and past, so it seems the dancers are all part of the same movement.

But as the season goes on, the small cuts to Berlin become longer and longer, and by the finale, the storyline set in the past — which turns out to be about how the Pfefferman family came to America and culminates in the birth of the series' central character — is just as important in terms of understanding these characters' journey as the story set in the present, and when the two dovetail in the final two episodes, it makes for transcendent TV.

Transparent suggests history isn't a straight line — it's a continuum. The past becomes the present, of course, but if we're aware in the present, we can catch the dim echoes of the past swimming all around us. It's a terrific idea to build a season around — and weirdly prescient, too.

Transparent examines the messy intersection between personal pain and societal privilege

Josh on Transparent
Josh (Jay Duplass) is in for some heartache this season, some stemming from his relationship with Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). But his pain doesn't erase his privilege, or vice versa.

White male privilege entered the zeitgeist in 2015 in a way that it really hadn't in the past, filtering up from the internet into mainstream society and influencing the way lots of people think about lots of things, for good or for ill. It's no accident, then, that Transparent — about someone who seemed to be a white patriarch revealing her truest self — proves adept at navigating these messy waters.

At the center of season two is an idea that comes up in the ninth episode: Your personal pain doesn't excuse an abuse of privilege, but being in a privileged position doesn't mean your pain isn't real and or doesn't deserve empathy. When Maura presented to the world as a man named Mort, she used her position within academia to keep out talented women scholars — perhaps unknowingly.

When Maura comes upon Leslie (Cherry Jones), a professor and poet whose career Maura hurt in the past, the series digs deep into questions of which actions matter when. Later, in episode nine, Maura and Leslie meet again at a women's music festival — one that makes a point of not allowing trans women to attend, because so many of them, when living as men, hurt women born biologically female.

The best thing about Transparent season two is its radical empathy. It doesn't argue that excluding trans women from women's spaces is a good idea — indeed, it ends up equating it with Nazism, at least a little bit. It simply says that when people are in pain, they might abuse their privilege, and then that becomes an everlasting feedback loop.

That radical empathy extends to everybody else, too. Josh (Jay Duplass), Maura's son, isn't treated as a buffoon, no matter how angry and reactionary he becomes. The Midwestern, Christian adoptive parents of the son Josh didn't know he had aren't treated as one-off jokes (though Transparent dances dangerously close to doing so a couple of times). This is a series where everybody's voices matter — but those voices will inevitably come into conflict because that is how we humans behave.

Season two also expands the show's supporting characters

Transparent cast.
The cast of Transparent.

If Transparent season one had a flaw, it was how singularly focused it was on Maura and her youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann). Both characters were terrific, and both actors gave great performances. But Transparent had such a wide roster of players and characters, and it sometimes seemed as if it lost sight of the others in the ensemble.

Season two does a much better job of pulling Josh, Maura's oldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Maura's ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) into focus. Josh's rage is rooted in something he has difficulty talking about, because it stems from something so intensely personal that even talking about it could hurt others' feelings. (That's the ground that Transparent works best.) Sarah, meanwhile, realizes how trapped she's become in the life she tried to use as an escape route out of her old one. And Shelly goes from being a caricature to one of TV's best portrayals of an older woman, trying to have a life outside of others.

The ensemble continues to expand from there. No matter how small the part, you get the sense that Transparent has put some thought into how each of its characters approaches the world — in terms of both how they'd get along with the Pfeffermans and how they'd come into conflict with them. One of the most persistent critiques of this show is that its central family is made up of awful people — but that's very much intentional. Transparent wants to show you all of these people as both their best and worst selves, then force you to recognize those qualities within your own life.

It's also a remarkable time capsule of this moment in the American left

Ali and Syd on Transparent
Ali (Gaby Hoffmann, right) and her friend Syd (Carrie Brownstein) embark on a relationship. As with most things Ali tries, it doesn't go so well.

Transparent seems to take place entirely within the life of comfortably affluent Los Angeles liberals. They're not so rich that their lives are a complete bubble, but Maura and her children can drift a bit, searching for what's right for them, because they have the luxury.

That lets Transparent be at once a celebration and satire of modern American progressivism — both its strengths and its complete blind spots. At times, it's hard to tell whether the show is gently affirming those strengths or mocking those blind spots, because it considers the two of them deeply linked on an internal level. When Sarah stumbles into a drum circle at the women's festival, for instance, it plays almost as a joke, but it also plays as exactly what she might need. Maybe she really does just need to lie down, relax, and meditate. What's wrong, ultimately, with that?

Yet Transparent also understands that there's no magic solution, that no society as open as possible, or as embracing of New Age healing or spiritual wholeness, could possibly do away with everybody's pain all the time. Pain is a part of life. Unhappiness is somehow central to existence. The best you can do is make peace with those around you and laugh about it a little.

And, oh yeah, it's much funnier this year

Sarah and Ali on Transparent
Sarah and Ali hide out at Sarah's wedding.

Season one received gripes from many when it started to win "comedy" trophies at award shows. I thought that made sense because Transparent's central point of view is more lighthearted than not, and it seems to posit an essentially hopeful view of the universe. I'm also aware that this basic description also suits Mad Men, yet I'd call Mad Men a drama, so I can see my own hypocrisy.

Now that we know the characters, however, Transparent season two lets us spend more time watching them in all their worst moments — which equates to better comedy than season one. Soloway's funniest moments in all of her work have always come when characters have been at their lowest ebb and lashed out (usually hilariously) at the universe; that means season two finds many more hard laughs than season one did, without having to transform the show into one that's suddenly cracking one-liners.

That idea is also at the very core of what makes Transparent work. It will be thoughtful one moment, then a gut punch the next, and then a belly laugh. It understands that life is a constant kaleidoscope of feelings and moments that get all mixed up in each other and come out all the colors of the rainbow. The show began by suggesting there is no hard-and-fast gender binary, but as it goes along, it suggests there are no binaries of any kind whatsoever — just people, messy and hurting and in need of love. It's the best show of the year.

Transparent's second season is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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