In Stray Observations, The A.V. Club collects its thoughts on recent streaming-TV releases that aren’t being covered episode-by-episode in TV Club. In this edition: Transparent, the third season of which debuted on Amazon on Friday, September 23.
The pilot has the reveal upon which the whole series hinges. “Kina Hora” is staged like a series of wedding photographs come to life. Season three of Transparent kicks off with “Elizah,” an emotionally wrenching mini-movie that sets Maura and Raquel on separate personal journeys. Kathryn Hahn’s portion of the episode does some thematic scene setting, Raquel’s Passover preparations focusing on a search for a truth that’s difficult to prove. The Maura scenes are a highlight reel for Jeffrey Tambor, hitting infuriatingly human, perfectly Transparent notes as his character tries to give a trans teen the help Maura deems necessary—against all logic and in flagrant violation of LGBT helpline policy. The Exodus imagery comes on a bit strong, and the cameos from J.B. Smoove, Sasheer Zamata, Lena Waithe, and Ron Funches are showy in a way that threatens to distract from this particularly pressing moment in Maura’s story. But the core of “Elizah” is so strong, and the filmmaking choices—the extreme closeups in the phone call, the quick cuts whenever Maura is misgendered—so emotionally charged, that the whole thing holds together. “I’ve got everything I need,” Maura tells Davina at the top of the episode. “So why am I so unhappy?” It’s a fitting epigram for season three as a whole, but especially fitting for the season’s stunning opener.
Like so much of what the Pfeffermans share (and continue to share, in a reduced capacity), they’ll never be able to rid themselves of the family homestead. Josh and Ali are still crashing there, and in reaction to the gaudy renovations the house underwent in season two, Maura and Josh make a different kind of crash in season three’s “Oh Holy Night.” It’s been a place of celebration, mourning, and confession, and it plays host to all three during the birthday party depicted in “To Sardines And Back.” In a chatty dinner scene where the overlapping dialogue and bad table manners recall the barbecue sit-down where Maura first informed her children that the house is on the market, her birthday wish—to be called “Mom” instead of “Moppa”—causes a bouquet of facial reactions to bloom around the table.
From smug Maura
to hurt Shelly
to the kids, sympathetic but still taken aback.
Shea and Davina steal a glance and a smile that says they’ve been there and they could’ve predicted how this went down
while Len is either avoiding the subject or really into the birthday cake. Typical Len.
And typical Pfeffermans, who deflect from the breaking news of Maura’s gender-confirmation surgery by launching a game of sardines, that variation on hide-and-seek where players attempt to cram into the same hiding spot. A perfect game for the boundary-less Pfeffermans and another perfect use of the Pfefferman house, a place where there’s always another nook or cranny to squirrel away your secrets and true feelings in.
The biggest find of the sardines game: Nacho, the reptilian pet who went missing from Josh’s room circa 1992 and became a minor social-media celebrity over the weekend. Initially, the show draws parallels between Nacho and Maura: In “To Sardines And Back,” both retreat to remote parts of the house, rather than deal with the other Pfeffermans. But Arrested Development fans will argue that Nacho has more in common with a different Jeffrey Tambor character.
There are flights of fancy that Transparent is built for—the Berlin flashbacks, or that moment in “Elizah” where Maura and Elizah appear to rest their heads on opposite sides of the same window—and some the show is not built for. Ali’s nitrous trips fall into the latter category. The youngest Pfefferman’s psychedelic appearances on Wheel Of Fortune (with Very Special Guest Star Caitlyn Jenner) add some levity to an increasingly dramatic third season, but the benefits of their genuine silliness are outweighed by the genuinely stupid arc they kick off for Ali. She’s a mercurial character given to a wide-eyed embrace of cosmic bullshit, but she’s not the type of person to convince herself that she saw the face of God in a dentist’s chair and then start telling other people about it—is she? The conclusion feels out of character, gives Gaby Hoffmann some crummy material to work with, and is out-of-proportion for what starts as a tie-dyed syndicated game-show fantasy. (Then again, “Out of proportion” might as well be on the Pfefferman family crest.)
Season three throws up a lot of warning signs—Rita’s climb to the top of the mall, Ali returning to the dentist, Sarah trying on Pony’s boots, Buzz’s lavish spending—but none as obvious as Josh flirting with Shea in “To Sardines And Back.” It’s just so clear that Shea’s going to get hurt, and she does, after agreeing to be Josh’s co-pilot when he delivers Rita’s ashes to Colton. Their tromp through a closed water park has all the cheer and gauzy photography of a road-trip indie comedy, cut short in gutting fashion as soon as Josh utters the words “I just had a notion.” Credit to Jay Duplass and Trace Lysette, who take an after-school special scenario and ground it in a real and rattling honesty, as Josh drops some grade-A cluelessness about sleeping with a trans woman, and Shea reminds him that an unintended pregnancy is not the only consequence of unprotected sex. It builds to a kiss off that’s a long time coming, a furious pronouncement that applies to Josh as much as it applies to the rest of his family and their relationships: “I’m not your fucking adventure. I’m a person.” It also marks Lysette’s elevation into the top-tier of the Transparent ensemble—assuming Shea ever wants anything to do with these people ever again.
The scene in the waterpark is echoed one episode later, when Sarah’s newfound embrace of her “spirituality” gets on Raquel’s last nerve. The rabbi is in a tough spot this season, grappling with a crisis of faith, working through some feelings about the temple’s new cantor, and tolerating an increased Sarah Pfefferman quotient in her life. When she can take no more, she explodes in a burst of venom and contempt for which Kathryn Hahn is particularly well suited. Picking a favorite is tough: Is it the editing in the buildup, where every new irritation from a drunk-with-community-outreach-power Sarah is registered on Hahn’s face? Is it the hand gestures she makes when she says spirituality is not “following your bliss”? Is it the line “It’s not finding yourself by crawling through your belly button and out your own asshole and calling it a journey”? (It might even be something that Raquel doesn’t say: cantor Duvid’s stammering response about the level of cursing that’s going on in the room.) The rant is a spotlight moment for Transparent’s most complex and compelling supporting player, one that sets high hopes for what Hahn and Jill Soloway might be able to do if their other Amazon collaboration, I Love Dick, goes to series.
Moving from episode seven to episode eight, the clues that a flashback has arrived mount slowly: The throwback country tune on the soundtrack, a pack of Newports and a glass bottle of Coca-Cola with a paper straw, the mod wardrobe of the two young women discussing a hike in the woods. But after briefly introducing the Maura (still identifying as Mort) and Shelly of 1967, “If I Were A Bell” zooms back to 1958, pivoting between the traumatic childhoods of the future Mr. and Mrs. Pfefferman. The secret of Shelly’s childhood is rote (shocking though the real-life crime may be, as a tragic TV backstory, child molestation has lost its shock through overuse), but young Maura’s struggle is something new, gaining heft against the backdrop of the Cold War and her family’s memory of Nazi occupation. She finds freedom in a fallout shelter, a structure that shuts out the rest of the world but can’t shield from metaphorical bombshells. But the shelter is also a symbol of a changing world, one from which young Sophia Grace Gianni can eventually emerge and spin her way through the opening credits of an award-winning TV show.
Season three efficiently and effectively strips the family of their connections to anyone but themselves, stripping the characters to the bone in the process and reducing the cast to the main, nuclear unit. And then it sets that unit out to sea, on a cruise made possible by Buzz’s wild credit-card spending. The origin of the trip casts a pall over Shelly’s vacation, but she’s given new life by her suite’s attendant (played by Tom Lenk in full “Andrew from Buffy The Vampire Slayer mode) and his insistence on staging Shelly’s long-simmering one-woman show, To Shel And Back. The performance is far from the trainwreck that’s promised by earlier episodes, and it earns Shelly a well-deserved moment of triumph that corresponds with other victories for the family: Sarah’s found renewed peace at home, while Ali’s awakening actually leads to positive things, as she helps Maura come to terms with not undergoing gender-confirmation surgery and leads an impromptu Passover Seder in the ship’s (it’s a ship, not a boat) chapel. In light of all those good feelings, Nacho, unfortunately, remains at large.