Three seasons in, the Pfeffermans of Transparent still have an unparalleled way with a faux pas. Multiple times in the Amazon series’ most recent round of episodes, the family—Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), Shelly (Judith Light), Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann)—finds itself in social interactions that are best watched through the cracks in your fingers. In their unrelenting selfishness, self-righteousness, and self-regard, these people deserve each other. Yet we keep coming back to the Pfeffermans because of the life given to these schmucks by the people portraying, writing, and directing them.
After devoting much of its second season to connecting the family’s yesterdays in Berlin to its todays in Los Angeles, season three is primarily rooted in the present, requisite half-hour flashback aside. The season opens in a moment of relative stability for the Pfeffermans, which is inevitably unmoored by various emergencies and traumas, one of which prompts Maura’s announcement that she’d like to take the next, medical steps in her transition. That the announcement is made at an inopportune time is no surprise; nor is the fact that Shelly and the kids find a way to take an extremely personal decision and make it all about themselves. But there remains power in Transparent’s command of the family dynamic, the way it shows the actions of one member rippling through the others. Reckless as the Pfeffermans are, scenes like this cause a yearning for the big ensemble scenes during the season’s later, more intimate chapters.
When Shelly curtly refers to her ex’s “sex change,” she’s rebutted with the preferred term: gender-confirmation surgery. In that moment, season three hits upon a crucial theme. There are things in this world that are certain and unshakably real to these characters, things that can’t be seen with the naked eye: Maura’s gender, or the faith of Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). Then there are the preoccupations and quick fixes that encircle Shelly, Sarah, Josh, and Ali, things like a capricious relocation or an epiphany induced by nitrous oxide. It’s these things that isolate and alienate the younger Pfeffermans, especially when they attempt to equate the lies they tell themselves with the truth someone else knows.
And watching them tell those lies is damn compelling. Josh at his worst finds Duplass at his best, as professional dissatisfaction and a personal tragedy propel him through a downward spiral. (The wardrobe department marks the change, the character’s trendy threads replaced with increasingly frumpy outfits.) Landecker is authentically infuriating, and Sarah’s attempts to fill the hole in her life both complicate her BDSM contract with Pony (Jiz Lee) and kick off an astonishing freak-out from Kathryn Hahn. Light, playing a character whom Transparent is more frequently laughing at than with, is both ludicrous and deserving of sympathy in Shelly’s single-minded pursuit to mount a one-woman show, titled To Shell And Back. The guilt-trip-wielding martyr she plays is easily caricatured—and easily mimicked by the actor playing Shelly in a 1960s flashback—but Light brings such earnestness to Shelly’s creative ambitions, seeing her actually performing To Shell And Back is practically euphoric. (Hilarious as it is when, in a previous episode, she’s being recorded while chanting the name of the show, never quite emphasizing the right words.)
While not quite reaching the heights of the show’s first season, Transparent manages to deliver something a little more fully formed and contained in season three. The new episodes are a mixture of loud ensemble pieces and quiet character studies, the former leading to the latter as the Pfeffermans effectively splinter from anyone who doesn’t share their last name. Contrary to that trend is the stirring premiere, “Elizah,” which focuses almost entirely on Maura and Raquel, taking them out of their elements with an urgency and contemplativeness that’s deftly balanced by series creator and episode director Jill Soloway. No other show on TV starts out its seasons with such strong statements.
One Pfefferman is bound to get swallowed up in all the chaos, and this time it’s Ali, who continues a rollercoaster romance with Cherry Jones’ Leslie, gets into an awkward encounter with a fellow TA, and has a couple memorable trips to the dentist. She factors into some major moments for Maura and Josh, but it’s unlikely any of this will contribute to Hoffmann’s streak of Outstanding Supporting Acrress Emmy nods. (The dentist stuff, while a fun change of pace, is also really, really stupid.) But this is a bug that’s built into the program, as a series so committed to showing all sides of its characters is never going to be able to give its whole ensemble equal time. There’s always a chance that next season will by Ali’s year, with one of her siblings or her parents receding to the background. As Transparent’s third season proves time and again, the journey of self-discovery is never-ending—just like the supply of potentially mortifying experiences for the Pfeffermans.