'Transparent' season 2: EW Review
Does any coming-out story have a real ending? Often when a drama follows a transgender character, that person’s narrative arc begins and ends with his or her transition. But life goes on after that—and now, finally, so does television. The Emmy-winning first season of Transparent introduced us to Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), previously known as Mort, just as she revealed her new self to her three adult children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), and Josh (Jay Duplass), inspiring the whole Pfefferman clan to question their own identities as their concepts of gender and sexuality became more fluid. Season 2 continues to delve into Maura’s struggle as a trans woman, and Transparent’s first trans director, Silas Howard, and first trans writer, Lady J, help ensure that her experience is authentic. One of the best episodes finds Maura cast out from a feminist festival that doesn’t welcome trans women, mirroring the real-life Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival controversy of recent years. But as Maura starts to accept her gender as an ordinary, no-big-deal thing, so does the show, which is a somewhat radical move. Shifting focus from Maura to her kids, this season delves into a broader issue: How can you love someone for their true self when that true self keeps changing?
It’s a smart twist that Maura, the Pfefferman who’s changed the most on the outside, is the only one who’s certain about who she is on the inside. The kids are still figuring that out. After leaving her husband to marry Tammy (Melora Hardin), Sarah ends up miserable on her wedding day, dying to sleep with other people and explore other forbidden acts, including S&M. Ali, after being queer for “about five seconds,” as Syd (Carrie Brownstein) puts it, is finally considering dating her friend—whose advances she has always rebuffed—as long as they can rewrite the rules of monogamy. (“What is being queer if not questioning everything?” Ali insists.) As Josh mourns the loss of the father he once knew, he’s redefining what it means to be a dad, especially now that his son, Colton (Alex MacNicoll), has returned and Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) is carrying Josh’s baby. All of this ego-nurturing and soul-searching leads to Pfefferman fights that often end with someone shouting, “This is not about you!”
For most of the Pfeffermans, any newfound openness is really just selfishness in disguise, and it’s fun to watch them brutally check one another’s intentions as only brothers and sisters can. Transparent understands the intimacy of siblings better than any drama since Six Feet Under, where Transparent showrunner Jill Soloway got her start, and Soloway has a gift for making viewers shift loyalties from one Pfefferman to the next, as if we were part of the family.
But not everything here feels as natural as the relationships. One plotline explores 1930s Berlin, where Maura’s ancestor (Hari Nef) lived in a tight-knit trans community. It’s an interesting chronicle of a lost culture, but it feels more like a history lesson than an integral piece of the Pfefferman puzzle, and it illustrates one of this season’s themes—that trauma can be passed down through DNA—too neatly. It’s Sarah’s, Ali’s, and Josh’s own funny, moving, sometimes enraging “transitions” that carry the season, as they still figure out how to act like grown-ups well into adulthood. Some people never stop becoming who they are, whether they’re trans or not. A–