Transparent Season 3 Review: Finding Better Footing Than Ever

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There was a lot of discussion leading up the Emmys last weekend, and even throughout the ceremony, that Transparent was wrongly placed in the comedy categories instead of the drama ones. The greatest irony for Amazon’s awards push for the series that finally put them on the map is that controversy arose out of arbitrary labels. An early dinner scene in season three has Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, as perfect as ever) asking her family not to call her “Moppa,” but to slip into calling her “Mom.” Shelly (Judith Light) doesn’t take well to having to share her title, setting off her poignant season long arc to find her place in her evolving family. The three kids, meanwhile, snicker and gossip about it being a little weird. But after these scenes, we don’t really hear anyone call Maura anything, aside from an unacknowledged “Moppa” slip-up in the finale (just one of the many small moments this season that helped the show achieve a significant jump in quality). As it turns out, what everyone calls Maura doesn’t really change anything. She’s still trans, the Pfeffermans still find ways to argue about everything, and their relationships, which trade off between sweet and tender support and maybe being a little too intimate, remain intact. The same goes for Transparent. Call it a comedy, call it a drama, the series is going to chug along being exactly what it is. For it’s triumphant third season, that’s only a thing to celebrate.

Seasons one and two of the series merely pointed toward greatness, occasionally stepping into it for full episodes (even after the third year, season two’s “Man on the Land” remains the cornerstone of everything Transparent is trying to achieve). But creator Jill Soloway has finally pushed the show into that territory for a vibrant, consistent batch of episodes that, all except for one (more on that later), achieve greatness in a way it hasn’t in past years. The individual episodes are pretty much all top-notch, a quality we’ve seen from this show before, though not nearly as frequently, but the flow of the season and how the character arcs evolve is as divine as television can be.

Season three finds the Pfeffermans in the same state of perceived crisis they just can’t seem to help causing for themselves. The premiere focuses on Maura’s attempt to reach out to a young trans woman who call the crisis line, and how her need to connect and help gets her into trouble. From there, we catch up with everyone else. Sarah (Amy Landecker) has found herself in a platonic living situation with her ex-husband that only seems normal when no one is making sure they’re heard saying how normal it is (so never). Josh (Jay Duplass) suffers a loss in the first half of the season that sends him on a tailspin of forced self discovery. Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is navigating a relationship with Leslie (Cherry Jones) that isn’t everything she thought it would be. Shelly, meanwhile, is putting together a one woman show. These separate story threads are interwoven through the usual awkward, occasionally loud family dinners. But more so than ever before, the Pfeffermans, and thus the show itself, are exploring religion.

Judaism is as present in season three as intersectionality, with the show at its best when the two come together. Sarah doesn’t get the warmest reception from her local synagogue when she brings up finding ways to better include LGBTQ+ members of the Jewish community. Then again, Sarah isn’t really doing it out of faith. But one of the most emotional moments of the season has Maura incorrectly and forcefully intersecting traditions in front of a large crowd just to be supportive to her son. It’s perhaps the most purely Pfefferman moment on the series, full of hilariously imperfect timing and genuine familial care. It’s relatable that the Pfeffermans kind of suck at being Jewish, bringing their dysfunction with them to every possible corner of their lives. Really, besides blood, it’s the one thing truly holding them together as their lives separately deteriorate over the course of the season.

Unfortunately, the finale, set on a cruise ship and featuring only the five main Pfeffermans, doesn’t touch on enough of the season’s storylines to feel wholly satisfying. Sure, there’s a nice moment that caps the season and brings together its themes in a meaningful way, but there still isn’t a whole lot of closure on many of the season’s plot threads. It’s a great episode, one that really lets the characters dig into each other in a fun setting, but as a finale, it leaves something to be desired. But then, that’s what season four is for.

Still, what separates Transparent from shows like Modern Family is that when it’s giving you a big speech about how “everything is fine,” everything really isn’t fine. Events happen in season three that will effect the characters for the rest of their lives. Events that really turn the word “fine” into something moot. Yet, the show still manages to be uplifting. It’s the small moments, from a fun hook-up at a bar to a silly interaction between siblings, that show us that even when these people aren’t “fine,” they’ll find avenues for happiness, temporary or otherwise. Transparent so wonderfully brings to life that quest for the next moment of fleeting happiness in the mess that is life and includes people that, before it, weren’t always so well represented on TV. For that, with all its moments that’ll make you laugh and cry, the show transcends labeling and achieves something far greater: a small, fussy, celebratory, melancholy, and just purely real beauty. Grade: A

Some More Spoiler-y Notes:

  • Best episode of the season is probably the premiere, which is rarity for such strong seasons of television. Though, a rewatch could push the flashback episode, “If I Were Bell,” above it.
  • I guess having Jeffrey Tambor actually undergo gender confirmation surgery purely for the purpose of the show would be too much to ask, huh?
  • I did sort of miss Tammy this season (mostly because I still love Melora Hardin from The Office), but we were treated to a whole new monster this season through Leslie who was just as vile.
  • Anjelica Huston’s role was pleasantly sizable this season! That was another doomed relationship difficult to watch, but I’ll always take more Anjelica Huston. Hopefully she’ll be back down the line.
  • Cry count: eight times this season. The ugliest was Maura’s speech after Rita’s suicide.
  • “Because I’ve got one hand in my pocket…”

By Matt Dougherty

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