Two key decisions are made right at the start of “Transparent” Season 2, though the weight of these choices doesn’t fully hit you until the season’s final scene. As is standard practice at Indiewire, we won’t be divulging any spoilers for the magnificent second season of Amazon’s first bonified original hit. But these choices can’t really be spoiled anyway. Even if you know to look for them before watching, their impact can’t be lessened or even explained in words.
First, creator, writer, director and producer Jill Soloway subtly shifts focus from who the children of the Pfefferman family are — an introduction a bit too bracing in Season 1 — to how they became the people we see this very moment. If viewers don’t pick up on the shift, that’s okay. They’ll undoubtedly notice the second major change: The flashbacks occasionally tied to Maura’s daydreams and structurally set up to emphasize the drama in the present have been elevated to new heights in Season 2. Yes, we still get to see what Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, finding new depths to a character he already won all the awards for) got up to in secret along with her good friend Marcy (the always splendid Bradley Whitford), but there’s a new diegetic source for a more mysterious flashback set further in the past. “Flashback” may not even be the right word for them, as we know their source if not necessarily their cause.
These may not sound like drastic shifts, and they’re not — not really. “Transparent” wasn’t in need of any extreme alterations after Season 1, so, like all great shows, it continued to build on its successful existing elements. Both decisions mentioned above function as extensions of ideas already established in earlier episodes, providing a kind of evolution that helps make the new season feel fresh and familiar in the best of ways. We don’t pick up right where Season 1 ended — thankfully, considering it’s been nearly 15 months since Season 1 premiered and more than 22 since we first saw the pilot – instead moving forward to Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy’s (Melora Hardin) outlandish wedding and the ensuing family chaos surrounding it.
The Season 2 premiere does a fine job establishing the arcs of our featured players. Some are obvious — like Sarah’s difficult decision — and others more subtle — a surprise encounter for Maura has lasting effects. But each character is sent on a journey and each journey is dealt with equally: Maura, Sarah, Josh (Jay Duplass), Ali (Gaby Hoffman) and Shelly (Judith Light) are all regular figures in this ensemble drama. (Emmys rules aside, “Transparent” is simply too intense, emotionally speaking, to be considered a comedy.)
If anyone is given extra time in the spotlight other than Maura, it’s Ali, but in a unique manner compared to her pivotal role last season. She’s developed a bit, moving past the shallow motivations of last season to become a more endearing character in Season 2. Yet the reason for her (slight) extra time is how her story ties together all the others. Ali sees something in the first episode that triggers her desire for knowledge; a desire that alters her perception of her family and our perception of the show as a whole.
While much of the credit goes to Soloway and her team of extraordinary writers (including Jill Soloway’s sister, Faith Soloway) and guest director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), the actors each deserve the bevy of attention already heaped upon them. Tambor remains in top form, digging into each word, look and reaction with apt attention and ample understanding. Light remains the most supporting player of the core lot, but she steals scenes with regularity. Landecker and Hoffman consistently surprise in moments big and small, while Duplass proves himself to be quite the actor (in addition to his other previously established talents).
“Transparent” is a show dealing with a whirlwind of emotions, but it’s also a show built on them. As striking as some of the scenes are individually — the premiere episode alone features a pair of long takes that are like sisters to one another, with the first being entirely still and the latter in constant motion — it’s not until you see the whole season that you can truly appreciate the depth of what’s being depicted. Yes, some major reveals are held until the very last episode, just like many other programs. But some discoveries come about strictly through the moment crafted around them. It’s not the information gleaned from the scene, so much as the sentiment felt while watching.