The Pfeffermans, the dysfunctional family at the center of Jill Soloway’s Transparent, return for a second season more poisonous and captivating than ever. Chatty charismatics, as bright and blunt as they are self-obsessed, the Pfeffermans are like amnesiac spiders—drawing interesting and substantial people into their web and then leaving them stuck in Pfefferman gossamer, abandoned for shinier prey. It is spellbinding to watch them in action, and it makes you feel lucky to be doing so through the safety glass of a TV screen.
Transparent began with Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) coming out as a transgender woman to her three adult children. “Adult,” in this instance, has no meaningful connection to “grown-up.” Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) greeted their father’s—now moppa’s—announcement with both acceptance and chaos. Liberal, sexually adventurous, culturally Jewish Los Angelenos, they were supportive of Maura’s transition, while undertaking wild transitions of their own, the ripple effect of Maura’s life change. Sarah, a married mother of two, torched her marriage for an affair with an old girlfriend. Josh, a feminist pussy hound, tried to commit to rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). Ali began exploring her own gender orientation and sexuality.
The new season begins with Sarah’s wedding to Tammy and the suggestion that, for the Pfefferman kids anyway, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is good news for us, in the audience, who get another season of prickly, funny, uncomfortable, beautifully acted, very Jewish character exploration, but less so for the Pfeffermans, who continue to let it all hang out until they are very, very exposed. Sarah, having destroyed one relationship, destroys another. Josh’s commitment to a stable family life with Raquel doesn’t flag, until it does. Ali becomes a lesbian and then uses it as an intellectual framework to do whatever she pleases. Transparent does not soft-pedal the difficulties and complications of being trans—the meds and the coming out, the suicide attempts and the sexual relationships—but Maura’s certainty about her own identity is like an anchor of sanity compared with her children’s clueless bobbing about. Being trans is difficult, but Maura at least knows who she is.
The key difference between this season and last is a recurring flashback to 1933 Berlin, where Maura’s mother, Rose, grew up and where, we learn, her brother Gershon found acceptance as Gittel in the open-minded Weimar Republic. The actors in the flashbacks, who include Michaela Watkins as Rose’s mother, speak in regular American English to communicate these vignettes’ larger point: Human beings have been being human for a long time now. Trans history is longer than the past few decades. It’s an idea that is more powerful in theory than in execution. The flashbacks feel precisely as unrealistic as the show feels realistic; they too seem to be populated by 21st-century California Jews. But they do highlight the implacability of the family spirit.
The Pfeffermans, to a one, are shiny: You can see why people are drawn to them, with their strong opinions, their bad attitudes, and their energy. But as ever, each Pfefferman takes his or her turn doing wanton emotional damage in pursuit of his or her own desires. Sarah loves Tammy, until Sarah suddenly dumps Tammy. Ali begins a relationship with her best friend, Syd (Carrie Brownstein), that is all adorable erotic puppy love, until it’s a limitation keeping Ali from a romance with an older, radical poet (Cherry Jones). Shelly (Judith Light), Maura’s ex-wife and the Pfefferman kids’ mother, is a terrible mom, the kind who reacts to her children’s traumas by sobbing, making herself the wounded party, but over the first few episodes she dotes on Maura, comforting her, complimenting her, desiring her—which Maura finds suffocating and cruelly puts an end to.
At moments, Transparent can teeter on the edge of Curb Your Enthusiasm territory, the very funny, very cringey land where people behave so badly that it can be harder to watch than a slasher flick. (For example when Sarah, looking for an all-consuming kind of sexual encounter, hilariously says to a man, “I want you to rape me, but I don’t want it to hurt. Like a rapist who wants you to come.”) But Transparent generally prefers to make short, mad dashes into this area, showcasing grotesque self-absorption in small, concentrated bursts that don’t give you enough time to avert your eyes, as when Sarah, probably deserving of the season’s Larry David award, apologizes to Tammy on Yom Kippur, exclusively because that’s the day Sarah needs forgiveness.
Transparent, a show about a woman coming out in late middle age, values honesty. But the show stages a grand skewering of “honesty” as a code word for selfishness. Josh and Ali both explain to their partners that they are just being “honest” when, in fact, they are doing exactly as they please and using “honesty” as a way to pre-empt dissent. Josh does this even though he knows one person’s honesty can be someone else’s complication. He admits, hesitantly, movingly, that it is “politically incorrect to say you miss someone who has transitioned,” though he does miss his dad.
Transparent, in this season as in last, has an uncanny verisimilitude. The Pfeffermans, with their foibles and self-justifications and overlapping banter and love of Canter’s coleslaw, feel real. The way Sarah, trying to make peace, complains about the proportions of a chair, uncomfortable just making nice; the hilarious, high-pitched, defensive giggle with which a woman denies her son is Jewish; and so much more. I haven’t even mentioned Ali, Sarah, and Maura’s trip to the lesbian music festival Idlewild, where trans women are not welcome, Sarah discovers spanking, Ali discovers Leslie, and Maura walks through the tents in a dusty panic that someone will begin to scream “man on the land.” But nothing is more real than the Pfeffermans’ faith that they are the center of the universe, that their opinions, their judgments, and their pain take precedence over everyone else’s, in nearly all cases. It doesn't make them good people, but it does make them great television.