Of the television shows to return for anticipated second seasons in 2015 after auspicious, ballyhooed freshman years, some of them maintain higher profiles than Amazon’s Transparent, but none had a higher bar to clear in year two. Creator Jill Soloway’s quietly confident meditation on family, faith, and identity was one of 2014’s most potent, promising, and fully realized half-hours. The show nabbed four top comedy awards between the Golden Globes and Emmys—including one each for Jeffrey Tambor’s stellar lead performance—and counted itself among the bellwethers of a contemporary civil rights movement. Transparent’s first season was something of an origin story, charting Mort Pfefferman (Tambor) as he transitioned to Maura, embracing the gender that wasn’t assigned to her but always felt like a better fit. Maura struggles to come out as a trans woman to her self-centered children Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who were completely unaware of their father’s gender dysphoria, and her ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light), who previously understood Maura’s attraction to women’s garments as that of a leisure-time fetishist. The process comes with its share of emotional speed bumps, but all things considered, Maura enjoys a relatively smooth journey into womanhood. In a coming-out story, the fear of losing foundational relationships provides most of the narrative stakes, and with the Pfefferman clan easing gracefully into life with “Moppa”—the children’s post-transition term of endearment—Transparent’s second season could have easily lost its urgency.
Impossibly, the show’s second 10-episode batch surpasses its first, and it does so by widening its focus on the Pfefferman family while keeping Maura’s journey central to the story. It’s a subtle yet powerful distinction from season one, which carefully fleshed out Sarah, Josh, and Ali, but because they were understandably consumed by Maura’s announcement, Transparent’s perspective hewed close to its punny title. The other characters always operated, to some extent, as cameras that each provided their own distinct perspective but stayed trained on Maura. With the reveal out of the way, Transparent blossoms into a more balanced show about an average family, each member of which is struggling to triangulate their identities. On a lesser show, the parallels between Maura’s life and those of her children would feel like clumsy false equivalences, a trap many well-intentioned storytellers fall into when writing for LGBT characters. But Soloway gives thoughtful treatment and ample time to all of the Pfeffermans, thereby avoiding making Maura’s journey indicative of some trans-specific pathology. It’s just a rarer, more precarious strain of the existential anxiety everyone experiences in one form or another.
Take for example the flighty Ali, who responded to Maura’s news by diving headlong into gender studies and embracing non-binary sexuality, a plotline that takes a surprising direction in season two. Josh, after spending years as a hipster lothario, must quickly adapt to unfamiliar expectations of him as he embarks on a traditionally monogamous relationship with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) and forges a bond with the teenage son he only recently met. Meanwhile, Sarah is adjusting to being openly lesbian, having dissolved her stifling heterosexual marriage, but learns that the idea of losing herself to a jointly formed identity is no less terrifying when her partner is a woman. Sarah’s wedding to her once-secret college sweetheart Tammy Cashman (Melora Hardin) is the setting for “Kina Hora,” a premiere that welcomes back fans as effectively and efficiently as it introduces newcomers to the Pfefferman dynasty.
In the premiere’s brilliant opening shot, the Pfeffermans crowd in for a photo with the happy couple, a simple enough task that becomes an minor ordeal thanks to the Pfeffermans’ characteristic kvetching. Soloway, who wrote and directed the episode, frames the chaos in a beautifully composed, static long-shot that begins as one of the year’s shrewdest directorial flourishes, then ends as a potent visual gag when Tammy’s clan of genteel Protestants executes its photo with surgical precision. The Pfeffermans look disastrous compared to the Cashmans, but because they’re so messily human, they’re the family you’d most want the camera to follow were it a choice. The scene helps to distinguish Soloway as one of television’s most visually inventive directors, a title she lays claim to without choosing style at the expense of substance. A lovely underwater sequence featuring Sarah, Josh, and Ali is also among the season’s beauty shots, and beyond its good looks, it drives home the depth of their sibling bonds.
Tambor continues to marvel as Maura, whose view of the world and of herself complicates as she ambles toward self-discovery. Coming out is only the first step of the long, winding path ahead of Maura, and she encounters hurdles that force her to examine herself even more deeply than she had to in order to embrace her gender in the first place. The first season feels almost like a thematic prologue, considering how enthusiastically Soloway and her writers dig into the knotty questions and intersectional implications of Maura’s transition. Maura is repeatedly confronted with her past as a man and as Mort, a series of confrontations she meets with varying degrees of hostility, as if she forgets that her gender rebirth doesn’t absolve her past sins. “Your pain and your privilege are separate,” says an old friend from Maura’s days in academia, one of several reminders that the inner turmoil Maura experienced as a man doesn’t invalidate the many advantages her birth gender conferred.
Maura doesn’t always understand the feedback, sometimes despite her best efforts and other times because she’s willfully obtuse. At her worst, Maura can be just as much of a dick as Mort was, and the duality is what makes the show’s depiction of her so empathetic. Soloway trusts the audience to connect with Maura despite her imperfections and understand that being trans isn’t a liability for which she has to compensate with otherwise flawless behavior. Transparent’s nuanced, sensitive portrayal of a trans woman feels all the more refreshing after the tabloid histrionics and transphobic rhetoric surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. The show works so well because it respects Maura without erasing Mort, going so far as to flash back to the lives of Maura’s forebears in an affecting immigrant tale. In Transparent, Maura’s transition isn’t a destination, it’s merely one step of a journey that stretches out in every direction like a hardy family tree.