You can’t choose your family, the saying goes. And most of the time, the Pfefferman family in Transparent definitely wouldn’t choose each other. They’re a loving but often narcissistic, confused, messy bunch of humans who do bad things and take advantage of the unconditional love they’ve felt from birth. But as far as TV families go, I would always choose the Pfeffermans to be my on-screen companions.
Amazon’s LA-set family drama has returned for its third series and it’s still astonishingly good. Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura, the trans father-turning-mother at the centre of the family, is unhappy but doesn’t quite know why. She struggles while working for an LGBTQ helpline, discovering that just because she’s trans doesn’t mean she’ll be able to understand the struggles of, say, a black trans teenager or a trans person from a different social class. It’s all complex, poignant stuff but it’s not dealt with in a heavy-handed, didactic way, instead executed subtly and beautifully. And to make the show even more relevant to 2016, Caitlyn Jenner’s much-hyped cameo happens in the first episode when she appears in Maura’s dream.
As with the previous two Transparent series, Maura is again the anchor of the story but her family’s private lives are just as crucial to the show as their own private dramas rumble on. In the new series, Josh (Jay Duplass) is mentally checked out of work, existing but not really living, while Ali (the excellent Gaby Hoffman) is panicking about her sexual relationship with her mentor. Meanwhile the sexually and religiously awakened oldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) has fully thrown herself into Judaism and is trying to get onto the board of her local Synagogue. There’s a great scene where she’s explaining her Synagogue gripes to the Dominatrix she visits each week.
But the very best thing about the show is probably Shelly, the mum of the family, played by Judith Light. She says funny but heart-wrenching things like, “When my husband left me for another woman I never thought the woman would be him…” and announces at a family dinner that she’s coming out as “a brand” on social media. “I’m transitioning too!” she yells excitedly.
Transparent doesn’t have lots of OH MY GOD moments in its plot – the Pfefferman world is made up of small narrative threads which work because the characters are so brilliant drawn, the relationships absolutely believable. Each episode is like a small indie film in its own right, as beautiful as any Wes Anderson flick but completely naturalistic. The characters react to things in surprising, unforseen, imperfect ways like humans do in real life. When Maura says she’s getting surgery to become a woman in a physical sense (“gender confirmation surgery”), the offspring smile and say all the right things but as soon as Maura leaves they fall about laughing – perhaps with fear, perhaps because they can’t quite believe it’s happening, or perhaps because they just feel like laughing.
Jill Soloway’s creation isn’t underrated in a critical sense – Transparent’s been showered with Emmys and Golden Globes – and it’s got committed viewers. But like Breaking Bad or The West Wing or The Sopranos it deserves to be talked about in the street, at dinner parties and in offices. It’s a brilliant show which manages to be both completely strange yet make you feel entirely at ease. The characters, whether they’re trans or young or old or heart-broken or happy, feel totally real and familiar. Long may it continue, because Transparent’s the kind of creative, life-affirming show that makes you glad TV was ever invented.