The third season of American television’s most dysfunctional Jewish family launched on Amazon a few days ago and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has already watched all ten episodes. (To be fair to myself, I spread it out over three nights. Does that still qualify as binging?)
If you haven’t been following this groundbreaking show, it follows the trials and tribulations of Maura (née Mort) Pfefferman (played by two-time Emmy® award winning actor, Jeffrey Tambor), a retired college professor in suburban Los Angeles who, at the age of 68, reveals to his family and the world that he identifies himself as a woman and wishes to transition to that gender. His three adult children take the news with varying degrees of acceptance. Sarah (Amy Landecker), the eldest, is going through her own identity crisis at the same time. She leaves Len, her husband, for a woman but, when that relationship sours (due to Sarah’s own mishugas), she returns home to him and kids. Len, though, has moved on and he’s now involved in a purely sexual relationship with a woman half his age. So, being southern California, Sarah and Len, agree to have an open marriage for the sake of family unity. Josh (Jay Duplass), the middle child, is perhaps the most self-centered of the three kids. A music producer, he bounces around from relationship to relationship (all heterosexual) creating emotional havoc along the way. One of his conquests is the family’s rabbi, Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). She gets pregnant but has a miscarriage later on. Josh takes the news with indifference because he’s so wrapped up in himself. In Season 2, he finds out that when he was a teenager he fathered a child with his parents’ close friend, and he sets out to meet his now grown up son and tries to have a father-son relationship with him even though the young man has a very warm and loving adoptive family. Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) is equally screwed up. Just as her sister starts questioning her own sexuality, so does Ali who decides that she’s a lesbian. She also bops around in relationships and, by the end of the second season, she embarks on one with an older professor at the college where she studies who has a track record of being a sexual predator. The most level-headed member of the family is Maura’s wife, Shelly (Judith Light), but it’s all relative. Shelly takes the news of Maura’s decision — and the de facto end of her own marriage — quite well. As the story unfolds, we learn that Shelly knew about Mort/Maura’s feelings for decades but kept quiet. That’s what Shelly does best. She keeps quiet and we learn more about why she’s that way late in the new season.
Season 3 picks up where Season 2 left off. Maura, who is now on female hormones, is involved with Vicki (Angelica Huston), though it’s ambiguous as to whether it’s a hetero- or homosexual relationship they’re having. She’s making plans to have what’s called “gender confirmation surgery”. Shelly is now living with Buzzy (Richard Mazur), a man she knows from the temple, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s just a freeloader. Sarah seems happy in her relationship with Len, as does Ali in hers with Leslie, but we know that neither will last. Josh is looking for the next relationship he can mess up and he finds one late in the season. Meanwhile, Rabbi Raquel is picking up the pieces to her life following her miscarriage and is now suffering from a crisis of faith. “Faith” seems to be the overarching theme of this season.
TRANSPARENT is billed as a comedy but the laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between. It’s more like a facepalm comedy, or perhaps a tragicomedy, as we watch each of the Pfeffermans get in their own, and quite often each other’s, way. They may not realise it but they are a deeply unhappy bunch. In this season, Maura acknowledges how unhappy she is, and the choices she has to make at the end are truly heartbreaking. Even with all their craziness, we want Maura, at the very least, to find happiness. Maybe Shelly too. Certainly not the kids though, who are completely selfish people and undeserving of any sympathy. Subject matter aside, that’s what makes the show challenging to watch. With the possible exception of Maura, we don’t root for the Pfeffermans. But then again, Maura/Mort is 50 percent responsible for creating such reprehensible children so how much sympathy should we be giving to her?
While most comedy TV shows neatly resolve its situations in 24 minutes, TRANSPARENT resolves very little. Instead, episode after episode, it keeps digging down, uncovering the characters’ deeply rooted issues, feelings and motivations. It’s like watching people go through therapy. Whether or not we like the Pfeffermans, this is television that moves us. It’s too bad that the producers only do ten episodes a year (versus about 22 for network shows) but perhaps that makes those of us who watch the series appreciate it all the more.