'Transparent' Is Transfixing In Season 2

Dec 8, 2015
Originally published on December 9, 2015 4:34 pm

As I watched each episode of the second season of Amazon's Transparent, the same question kept popping into my mind: Are the Pfeffermans the most dysfunctional family now on television?

The first episode of the new season begins with an awkward wedding photo. The family has gathered for eldest daughter Sarah's marriage to her lesbian partner. But the show's lead character, Jeffrey Tambor's transgender academic Maura Pfefferman, has a problem: Her homophobic sister is in the audience.

"She's a filing cabinet with a hairdo," Maura tells her ex-wife, Shelly (played by Judith Light). "She hated me when I was male ... And when she was little, she used to accuse me of wearing her clothes."

"Did you?" Shelly asks.

"Of course I did," Maura answers.

Moments later, as Sarah prepares to start the ceremony, Maura can't help asking why she invited a hated relative to the nuptials.

"How can you do that to me?" Maura says. When Sarah notes that her aunt might have brought her grandmother to the ceremony, and that would have been beautiful, Maura reminds her daughter that Grandma Rose is ailing and in a wheelchair.

"OK, so she's in a wheelchair ... people in wheelchairs go places," says Sarah, focused on her need to have more relatives at the wedding. "I was at Disneyland and we were on the Small World ride and there was a woman there with a wheelchair on the ride."

This is Transparent's signature style: to bounce two incredibly self-involved characters off each other until you're not sure which person annoys you more.

The show has a lot to prove in its second season, which debuts all 10 episodes Friday (Amazon released the first episode of the new season early last week). Its debut season won two Golden Globes and five Emmy awards, marking Amazon as a contender in the original television series world and earning plaudits for its complex portrayal of a transgender woman.

In the second season, viewers see more of Maura's journey, for sure. But what may surprise is that many of the most affecting moments from the new episodes center on the rest of the Pfefferman family.

Sarah, played by Amy Landecker, gets particular attention. Without dropping major spoilers, she's struggling to cope with a life that's coming apart at the seams. Even when she wins sessions with a life coach in a raffle, things turn upside down when Sarah begins to argue with the counselor for questioning her commitment to the process.

"For you, for all intensive and purposes, you didn't choose [counseling]," the coach says.

"That's not my fault," Sarah counters. "But it's not 'intensive purposes' ... it's 'intents and purposes.'

"That's not true," the coach insists. "Are you controlling? People say you're pretty controlling."

"I'm not controlling," Sarah counters. "I'm just honest."

That line is a bit of an inside joke, because one of the biggest problems all the Pfeffermans face is the secrets they keep from each other and themselves.

Transparent's second season makes more compelling drama out of every character's search for personal truth. It's as if Maura's transition has pushed her entire family off balance, forcing them along the same journey of discovery in different ways.

It's tough to describe details without spoilers, but the series somehow keeps you involved as this group of supremely flawed characters flails away at finding fulfillment, often damaging others outside their clan who get too close.

Cherry Jones pops up as a lesbian university professor whom Maura once discriminated against before her transition. And transgender model Hari Nef appears in flashbacks to 1933, drawing parallels with another character in the present time.

The family storylines are juicy, but they can sometimes overshadow the details of Maura's transition, which involves sorting through her feelings for Shelly and trying to decide whom she is attracted to.

We do learn this season Maura hasn't thought much about the practical aspects of her gender change, as a conversation in a clinic with a brutally frank doctor reveals.

"Do you plan on getting breasts?" asks the doctor.

"Two please," Maura replies.

"Do you plan on undergoing gender reassignment surgery?" the doctor says.

Long pause. "I'll have to get back to you on that one," Maura says, finally.

"Mrs. Pfefferman, do yourself a favor," the doctor adds, closing her notebook. "Get to know your body."

Transparent continues its pattern of being awfully dramatic for a comedy — while Emmy may consider the show a comedy, it feels more like a drama with wry moments along the way, as it expands its scope to feature more transgender performers and a wider array of subjects.

After watching all 10 episodes in the new season, I'm surprisingly transfixed by the lives of characters I once couldn't stand. Their struggle to live authentic lives makes Transparent's second season even better than the first.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The search engine Bing released its most popular searches of 2015. More than any other person, people looked for information about Caitlyn Jenner - the former Bruce Jenner.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

People also googled her a lot. And those search results do tell us something. In this year when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, much of the nation has moved on to a mainstream discussion of transgender and transsexual issues.

INSKEEP: Here's another indication - the popularity of the streaming Amazon TV series "Transparent." It centers on a transitioning lead character played by Jeffrey Tambor. It won two Golden Globes and five Emmy awards in its first season in 2014.

GREENE: The entire second season drops Friday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has been watching, and he finds a show that is less about politics than about a crumbling family.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As I watched each episode of "Transparent's" second season, the same question kept popping into my mind. Are the Pfeffermans the most dysfunctional family now on television?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As photographer) Pfeffermans, come on. If you've got kids, please, I ask you...

DEGGANS: The first episode of the new season begins with a wedding photo. The families gather for eldest daughter Sarah's marriage to her lesbian partner. As the ceremony begins, Jeffrey Tambor's transgender academic Maura Pfefferman has a problem. Her homophobic sister is in the audience. Later, as Sarah's preparing to walk down the aisle, Maura can't help asking her why she invited a hated relative to the wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")

JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) How can you do that to me, huh (ph)? I don't understand. And you're Facebook friends?

AMY LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) Bryna could have brought Grandma Rose. That would have been beautiful.

TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Yes, it would have been beautiful. But Grandma Rose is sick, and she's in a wheelchair.

LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) OK, so she's in a wheelchair. People in wheelchairs go places. I was at Disneyland, and we were on the small world ride, and there was a woman with a wheelchair on the ride.

DEGGANS: This is "Transparent's" signature style - to bounce two hopelessly self-involved characters off each other until you're not sure which person annoys you more. Consider this scene. Sarah wins a raffle for a visit to a life coach. But even that good luck quickly turns into bickering.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As life coach) For you - for all intensive purposes, you didn't choose it.

LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) That's not my fault. But it's not intensive purposes. It is intents and purposes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As life coach) That's not true.

LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) I - well, that you said it or...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As life coach) Are you pretty controlling? People say you're pretty controlling.

LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) No, I'm not controlling. I mean, I'm just honest.

DEGGANS: That line is a bit of an inside joke because one of the biggest problems every Pfefferman faces is their dishonesty with each other and themselves. "Transparent's" second season makes compelling drama out of every character's search for personal truth. It's as if Maura's transition from male to female has pushed her entire family off balance. The storylines are so juicy they sometimes overshadow the details of Maura's transition. We do learn this season that she hasn't thought much about the practical side of her gender change, as a conversation in a clinic with a brutally frank doctor reveals.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As doctor) Do you plan on getting breasts?

TAMBOR: (As Maura) Two, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As doctor) Do you plan on undergoing gender reassignment surgery?

TAMBOR: (As Maura) I'm going to have to get back to you on that one.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As doctor) Mrs. Pfefferman, do yourself a favor and get to know your body.

DEGGANS: In its second season, "Transparent" is employing more transgender people on and off screen. That may be why storylines featuring Maura struggling to figure out her sexual orientation and relationship to her ex-wife feel so genuine. I've watched all 10 episodes of the second season, and it's the story of the entire family that remains at the heart of this dark comedy. Their struggle to live authentic lives makes "Transparent's" second season even better than its first. I'm Eric Deggans.

INSKEEP: You hear Eric's reviews on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: And I'm David Green. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.