“Why does it have to be about Maura all of the time? Maura’s transition? Maura’s surgery? Maura, Maura, Maura!” says Vicki (Anjelica Huston) in one of several emotional crescendos that occurs during the just-released third season of Transparent. She has a point, and it’s supported by none other than the show itself, which surveys the various ways humans obscure and reveal their true selves to others, regardless of gender identity. The coming out and transition of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) originated as the central narrative in Transparent’s universe, but now Maura is just one star in a galaxy of them, and the show is better for it.
Take Shelly (Judith Light), Maura’s ex-wife. “I, too, have transitioned,” is her chirped announcement early in the season. “I’m coming out. I’m reaching out. I’m a brand!” Shelly is pursuing a social media presence and developing a one-woman show about her life experience, which includes (but isn’t entirely defined by) her marriage to Maura (when she was known as Morton). Her announcement is played for laughs, as many of Shelly’s lines are—her one-woman is titled, ridiculously, To Shell and Back—but by the end of the season, the importance of Shelly finding her voice is clear. Having transitioned beyond brand to artist, Shelly informs her apathetic family at a critical juncture, “If you want to hear my story, my story wants to be heard by you.”
Transparent has so much hope for the ability of its characters (and humans in general) to fulfill their potential, and the show’s suggested path to this is self-acceptance. That’s easier suggested than done, though, as it sometimes means finding peace with the world’s initially uncomfortable ambiguities, and luxuriating in identity’s fluidity if you can relax enough to receive its wonder (more than one character in this season sets his or her sights on a partner of a sexuality or gender identity that previously didn’t seem to be on that person’s menu). This plays out most overtly in the arc devoted to Maura’s continued transitioning, which takes surprising turns this time around that may not satisfy the inhabitants of Transparent’s world, but are nonetheless reassuring to take in from the outside. Even at our best, we aren’t as perfect as we’d hope to be. And that’s OK.
As Maura strives to externalize her inner self, other characters struggle to withhold. So many scenes are punctuated with befuddled expressions, extended pauses, held gazes in the place of snappy comebacks. Transparent wears awkwardness proudly like a badge proving its authenticity. When people do express themselves fully, it is often at their own social peril. An offhanded comment made by Maura’s son Josh (Jay Duplass) to Shea (Trace Lysette) about how sex with a trans woman would free him from the anxiety of impregnation effectively destroys his chances with Shea who, as a trans woman, finds his musing reductive. The relationship between Maura’s daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffman) and Leslie (Cherry Jones), a professor several years her senior, strains precisely because of Leslie’s complete reluctance to curb her tongue in virtually every given situation. “To criticize you is to love you. To reflect you is to love you. Just sit in the discomfort,” Leslie advises her far more sensitive mate.
Meanwhile, a lie—a simple, white one—shuts down yet another of the show’s pairings. Which is harder: revealing or withholding? It’s a draw. The amount of times that not holding back gets people into trouble on Transparent bespeaks the show’s general attitude towards the futility of human communication. Inevitably, whether you share your emotional state with those around you or not, you will be misunderstood. Not always, but more often than you’re bound to be comfortable with.
In those spaces, Transparent finds its drama and, often, its comedy. There are a great number of gracelessly hilarious scenes featuring Maura’s other daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) this time around, including one where she babbles to a group of people who are set to approve or deny her for the synagogue board she’s trying to join. She goes on a tangent regarding how millennials are monsters created by the generations that preceded them—by Sarah’s account, they were raised on porn and have constantly gaping raptor mouths, ready to suck cock all day long. (There’s another really great line delivered to Sarah about why there’s no money in being a woman who provides dominatrix services to women: “It’s really not that hard for a woman to find someone to treat her like shit for free.”)
Sarah is more deeply concentrated on Judaism than in the show’s previous seasons—this time around spirituality is brought to the forefront of what has always been a very Jewish show. This focus makes a ton of sense, as the show unfurls with increasing thematic meticulousness. As Duvid (Kobi Libii), the love interest of Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) puts it: “For me, God is ever-changing. That’s what we’re trying to do here is take something that can’t be expressed in words and give it ritual and community…” On a show so consumed by examining what is said versus what goes unsaid, the sharpening of this theme couldn’t be more germane.
It’s easy to become effusive over a show that’s so ingenuously crafted with performances that started spot-on and have only nudged closer to absolute bulls-eye as they’ve become more lived in. That said, Transparent has never been perfect and this season has its problems. The show, as ever, is still prone to whimsy that at least momentarily undermines the great truths about human communication that it probes and uncovers. A game of hide and seek that emotionally punctuates an episode feels a little too on-the-nose (especially given the secrets that are revealed during it), and a romp through a closed water park during its off-season is similarly saccharine. The show waves its hand at trans diversity during its season premiere, which features several trans women of color characters, but it doesn’t really follow up on it. In fact, Transparent’s aesthetic is gleamingly white, especially every time the show cranks up yet another whitey indie song to over-sentimentalize a scene that would otherwise play fine without such blatant musical cues. And, as the season progresses and more characters have expressive breakthroughs, it tends to be a little screamy, hitting the same beats in the same dynamic range repeatedly.
These are not insignificant gripes, but Transparent is more good than bad for the world by a wide margin, and it’s never been more thoughtful or compulsively watchable than in this terrific third season. Transparent has the unenviable task of selling what Hollywood would probably consider to be a niche story to a general audience. Even trickier is that a large number of built-in viewers are woke liberals with Twitter accounts and a high level of sensitivity to messaging in pop culture. Transparent plays in front of an audience that’s often more eager to evaluate pop culture for its politics than its aesthetics. And yet, by striking a dizzying balancing act without even signaling as much through self-congratulation or smarmy pandering, Transparent emerges triumphant. (This season even manages to incorporate a cameo from Caitlyn Jenner that’s hilarious and bizarre enough that it can be appreciated by her detractors.) The show’s specificity and sensitivity goes beyond its handling of Maura’s storyline—in fact, by exploring Maura’s journey toward true self-expression alongside the journeys of all that surround her, who all struggle with exactly how much of themselves they should be showing to the world, the show conveys a universality that never feels like a watered-down copout, but merely something like the truth.