Many spectacular series have captured the affections of critics and viewers this year, but Amazon saved one of the best for last. Directed and orchestrated with an even more confident, impressive hand by creator Jill Soloway, the second season of “Transparent” follows the Pfefferman family as it deals with the outcome of various decisions made at the end of last season. Few shows navigate seemingly impossible pivots from tragedy to comedy with such offhand grace, and the Pfeffermans somehow manage to be frustrating, inspiring and profoundly vulnerable all at once. In the hands of Soloway and her outstanding cast, the family’s fumbling attempts at self-knowledge pierce the heart even as they inspire rueful laughs.
Even more so than last year, “Transparent” is now a true ensemble piece. Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) is still navigating what it means to live as a woman, but her storyline, while reliably compelling, does not necessarily dominate the season. Judith Light, who plays the jittery matriarch of the clan, gets a bit more screen time this year — a welcome development — and each of her three adult children continue to struggle with a combination of delayed adolescence and earnest attempts to grow up.
It’s to the show’s great benefit that each installment clocks in at less than a half-hour and never overstays its welcome. Too many programs, especially in the streaming arena, appear to be determined to run out the clock, not realizing that as an episode approaches the 60-minute mark, it loses in tautness and focus what it gains in time. “Transparent,” however, is well aware that its characters are not always charming; Soloway and her editors know exactly when an escapade is about to try the audience’s patience and they always cut away at the perfect moment. Just a few of the series’ many charms are its nimble energy and its ability to hopscotch between sadness and silliness without missing a beat; there are also scenes of pure joy, like a road-trip sing-along to the Indigo Girls classic “Closer to Fine.” “Transparent” is also ridiculously funny at times, and quite willing to send up the self-absorption of its characters while never losing sight of their pain and aspirations.
Each episode is packed with incidents, confrontations, revelations and ruminative flashbacks — Soloway freely borrows from soap operas, sitcoms and serious dramas, depending on the story being told — and yet the show’s greatest accomplishment may be that it unfailingly gives important moments enough space to breathe. Soloway is particularly interested in how people relate to each other physically and how pain and pleasure reverberate through bodies; the age, gender and physical appearance of the participants in a sex scene don’t matter to her as much as their emotional connection, an approach that infuses the entire series with a sense of sweetness and wonder.
Soloway’s willingness to perform what amount to careful emotional autopsies puts her in the top rank of directors working today, in part because she pokes around inside the tough moments, not just the tender ones. Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) is the ultimate L.A. music-industry dude-bro, and yet the actor and the showrunner expertly find ways to expose the terrified little boy underneath his hipster demeanor. Several standout scenes depict Josh silently reacting to emotional devastation and wrenching confusion; Soloway’s camera stands a respectful five or 10 feet away, but that distance is soaked in clear-eyed compassion.
Another bravura shot is the opening one of the season, in which a wedding party squabbles and banters as the photographer attempts to record the image for posterity. Soloway’s camera remains still for the entire sequence, capturing every nuance, air-kiss and strained interaction, and it soon becomes clear how pointless it is to try to represent everything that’s going on in a single image. The Pfefferman clan picks up and sheds new members with astonishing and slightly terrifying speed, something anyone in their orbit soon finds out (and by the way, that opening scene — as well as the whole first episode — is available now on Amazon Prime).
That heedlessness has a cost: Sarah (Amy Landecker) spends much of the season lost and unmoored, and it’s hard to watch Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) run roughshod over the emotions of a new lover, yet Hoffmann does an exceptional job of conveying Ali’s adventurous confusion over her gender, her future and her family’s past. Like the rest of her clan, she’s both brave and oblivious, and it’s hard not to love the goofy brio and instinctive kindness she brings to so many situations.
There’s no tidy revelation that will heal these people, whose affluence gives them the time and space for all manner of personal explorations. The five family members go through quite different experiences this season, but restlessness is a common trait, and the kids all share an inability to fully commit. Answering one set of questions or meeting one set of desires just leads to another set of revelations and consequences, an effect that might be exhausting for the characters around them, but for viewers, it can make for memorable parties and dates. It’s easy to relate to the conundrum that trips up the Pfeffermans: They want to feel safe and secure, and yet acquiring self-awareness and deepening relationships are hardly risk-free endeavors. But now that they have their “Moppa’s” example to follow, the Pfefferman kids have fewer reasons to keep secrets, and more motivation to live authentically — and maybe even thoughtfully.
As the second season unfolds, the viewer learns that there are reasons the family’s emotional vocabulary is so limited: Flashbacks to their roots in 1930s Germany offer some theories about why the Pfeffermans remain unsettled and unsatisfied in the present day. Gulfs of grief separate these people from each other, despite their enmeshed relationships, and yet this fantastic series hums with a hopeful energy. Many of “Transparent’s” most beloved ideas come full circle in the graceful 10th episode, which uses this specific set of neurotic Los Angeles residents to access universal truths about pain, connection and the unlikely endurance of love.
“You will learn to survive me” are the lyrics of a well-chosen song on the show’s soundtrack. All the Pfeffermans have a lot to learn — but this season, at least they’re getting somewhere.
TV Review: 'Transparent' Season 2
Filmed in Los Angeles by Topple and Picrow
Executive producers, Jill Soloway, Andrea Sperling; director, Soloway; writer, Soloway; director of photography, Jim Frohna; production designer, Catherine Smith; costume designer, Marie Schley; editor, Catherine Haight; music, Dustin O’Halloran; music supervisor, Bruce Gilbert; casting, Eyde Belasco; 30 MIN.
Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Gaby Hoffmann, Cherry Jones, Anjelica Huston, Carrie Brownstein, Kathryn Hahn, Melora Hardin, Bradley Whitford, Alexandra Billings, Hari Nef, Michaela Watkins