“I’ve got everything I need. So why am I so unhappy?” That’s Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) to herself at the start of Transparent Season 3. Amazon’s superlative show, which has made being one of the best TV series of our time a matter of routine, takes us back into the fold of the Pfefferman clan – and little has changed.
In terms of quality, that’s hardly a surprise: showrunner Jill Soloway and her team have mastered their format and characters to the point where you’re used to the quietly stylish storytelling and subtly bold themes.
In terms of characters, that’s no surprise either: our L.A. family are the same flawed, messed-up, faintly horrible people, whom Soloway both sympathises with and gently criticises in equal measure. Season 3’s return, to discover that the ensemble remain far from over Maura’s coming out, might seem like an anti-climax, but there’s an increasingly sharp study of their self-centered nature that bites underneath the emotional surface.
“I’ve got everything I need. So why am I so unhappy?” It’s telling that Maura’s question is about herself, not about how her family are doing. For all her passionate determination to be honest with her children, she’s so caught up with her journey of self-discovery that she’s often unconcerned about their well-being.
We see that more than ever in the first episode, as she takes a job on a trauma helpline, which allows her to feel better about how much she helps other people. When a call with another young transgender person – beguilingly filmed in brief close-ups – goes wrong, Maura first worry is about how she’s failed. Her second worry? How to fix the problem by running over to the clinic where her caller rang from – a saviour act that reeks of privilege, which Soloway allows us to both empathise with and question; by the time she’s at the Slauson shopping mall, far from the sheltered wealth of her family, she’s a white figure sticking out in a busy crowd.
Claustrophobic close-ups and wide shots frame Maura as both the most important person in the frame and the most out-of-place man in the building – a jarring juxtaposition between how we view Maura and how the world views her. Jeffrey Tambor is magnificent, managing to be heartbreakingly fragile and vulnerable while still slipping in unintentional digs at other trans women.
But Maura, of course, is not the only one still undergoing change – and we swiftly remember that everyone else in her family is far from done processing what is effectively the loss of their father.
Ali (the marvellous Gaby Hoffman) looks more mature than ever, as she finds herself a natural home in grad school, where she can ask big questions without fear of recrimination. She’s steered by tutor Leslie (Cherry Jones), though, whose increasingly slimy presence makes it clear that Ali hasn’t grown up that much after all. Compare that to Josh (Jay Duplass), who is now walking around as a record label exec, his growth accentuated by the contrast with a young employee at the company, who talks in emojis. It sounds unsubtle, but the real detail is in his costume, his increasingly boring ‘adult’ attire clashing with a moustache that looks like it was grown by a 12 year old.
Judith Light also makes a brief appearance as Shelly, Maura’s ex, who, it turns out, has dealt with the problem by finding a new love: herself. Delighted with the idea of her own autobiographical show, titled To Shell and Back, she’s as despicable as she is delightful. It’s hard to say that with Sarah (Amy Landecker), the most notably self-absorbed of the bunch. In a visit to see Maura, she’s the one who first asks to duck out so she can go to her appointment with her friendly neighbour S&M – and even then, doesn’t quite feel the pain she wants.
Transparent still deals with their foibles in a tender way that is hard to resist, but it’s telling that the season opens on none of the Pfeffermans at all, but Raquel. Kathryn Hahn stole whole episodes in Season 2, as her Rabbi hooked up with, and broke up with, Josh. With them continuing to snowball through their first-world problems, she’s left to go through her own crisis. When she does cross paths with the family, Sarah’s using her to fill a whole in her life by throwing herself into religion, while Josh sees that as purely a move to spite him. (“Want me to start hanging around with Tammy?” he snaps.)
Raquel situates us in the limbo between the past and the present, searching for a way forward. Throughout her pondering voiceovers, Nina Simone’s Ne Me Quitte Pas plays in the background; for everyone else, the cry of “Don’t leave me” is typically egotistical, but for her, it’s a spiritual call for help – and Transparent, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from the importance of religion to Maura and everyone else’s identities. A sublime flashback, via a touching piano interlude, makes it clear that we’re not quite done with the Pfeffermans’ heritage, but there’s a statement of intent for the show – that as much as the group’s problems lie in their self-centredness and obsession with the past, they can also be the saviour of their future. They’ve got everything they need, so why are they so unhappy? The continuing journey to find that out promises hope as much as tragedy. And if there’s one thing we know, Amazon’s show handles both with equal class and unrivalled nuance. When it comes to unhappiness, or any other other emotion, Transparent has still got everything we need.
All 10 episodes of Transparent Season 3 are available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video UK. Season 1 and 2 are already available to stream. Amazon Prime Video costs £5.99 a month – or, for free next-day delivery on products from Amazon as well, £79 a year for a full Amazon Prime membership.
For more on Transparent, see our interview with Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor from last year – or read our reviews of Season 1 and 2.