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‘Transparent’ Review: Season 3 is Rewardingly Lost in Transition

What comes after coming out? Jill Soloway and the Pfeffermans struggle with identity, religious and family crises in a season short on answers, but packed with the right questions.

Kathryn Hahn Transparent Season 3

After you’ve done the impossible, what’s next?

The question functions as a central thesis for “Transparent” Season 3, as Maura Pfefferman — who came out to her family in Season 1 and fell in love during Season 2 — wonders why she’s still unhappy despite having “everything.” This kind of morose existentialism has been a marker of outstanding television of late (“The Leftovers,” “BoJack Horseman” and Jay Duplass’ “Togetherness,” to name a few), but perhaps the more interesting aspect of the question itself derives from why Jill Soloway is asking it here and now.

“Transparent” Season 2 was a creative barnburner — alive with intensity from scene to scene as Soloway not only made crucial adjustments to the character dynamics established in Season 1, but introduced a time-jumping theme that built to a sensational crescendo of emotions. It was, in reductive terms, the best it could possible be.

So, what’s next?

While it’s easy to say Season 3 is a bit of an artistic sidestep to the very question it poses, embracing more traditional storytelling without losing its verve, Soloway’s examination of a family searching for answers to some of life’s most unanswerable questions — primarily, “What is happiness?” and “Will I be OK?” — remains a valuable discussion-starter. What few answers can be derived from the 10 disjointed episodes are appreciatively inspiring, if not inspired, while the season overall still manages to forge new ground thanks to a bevy of fresh voices.

Transparent Season 3 Gaby Hoffmann & Jay Duplass

The opening episode, “Elizah,” literally follows Maura on her search for purpose. After complaining to Davina (Alexandra Billings) about her inescapable discontent, Maura volunteers at an LGBT help line and receives a call that unsettles her. After the call gets away from her, Maura heads out on a hurried expedition to help a suicidal young girl in South L.A., but Maura’s good intentions are put into question as her white guilt leads to some unfortunate mishaps.

Even if though the episode isn’t as independently satisfying as last year’s “Man on the Land” (similar in construction and directed by Soloway), it’s encouraging to see the creator respond to complaints about racial discrimination within her inclusive-minded series, and the episode stands out for more than just how Maura’s identity is deconstructed in relation to her privilege. Raquel, the rabbi played by Kathryn Hahn, opens the episode with a sermon she’s practicing, and we see shots of her wandering through the woods as Maura searches for Elizah and Elizah searches for help.

Raquel quickly becomes an aptly prominent figure given her positioning in the premiere. After splitting with Josh (Jay Duplass) last season, it was unclear how she’d continue to be integrated into the family, but it was just as clear she had to be. Hahn’s performance alone warrants it, but Raquel’s path has become essential to the series’, and it’s often better defined than a few of the other core characters. (Sarah, for instance, spins her wheels a bit this season.) I say “often” because Raquel’s self-exploration after suffering a miscarriage is depicted in a nuanced, surprising and utterly honest manner — to a point. Season 3 ends without revisiting Raquel, which becomes a slightly frustrating pattern.

Transparent Season 3 Judith Light

After getting a bit lost in its big questions, “Transparent” Season 3 doesn’t find a strong resolution for all its characters. Maura is given just enough closure to establish a definable arc, and Jay Duplass does a lot with a storyline that repurposes elements from last season (though one episode basically turns Josh into a tool used to discuss topical issues). But Raquel, Sarah and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) are all left hanging in the wind. It’s reassuring to know we’ll get to learn more about them next season, but it’s a bit disappointing to spend so much time exploring their relationships with Josh, Len (Rob Huebel) and Leslie (Cherry Jones) and then be left waiting for conclusions.

But if sacrificing their endings meant providing one for Judith Light’s Shelly, it’s very nearly worth it. Pushed more and more outside her family’s inner circle, Season 3 finds Shelly trying whatever means necessary to work her way back in. Early on, she’s immediately identifiable as the uncool mom desperately seeking her children’s affection (and her ex-husband’s), but the fresh motivations for seeking that love are made as clear to the viewer as they are unclear to Shelly’s kids. There are cringe-inducing moments of disparagement that feel like they’re building up to something incomparably painful, but — without spoilers — let’s just say Shelly’s resolution is broad enough to justify her difficult journey, if not profound enough to cover the rest of the family.

Soloway and her team of writers — including her sister, Faith Soloway, Season 2’s discovery Our Lady J (who penned a telling flashback episode in Season 3) and a bevy of women as talented as they are diverse — should be applauded for daring to explore broadly relatable existentialist questions in relation to gender, race and forms of identity. Much of what they uncover is immediately gripping and relevant, even if its long-term effect is less revealing than past seasons. Yet perhaps what’s most admirable about the third season of “Transparent” is that it’s distinctly different than the first two: More formally daring than Season 1 and less structured than Season 2, “Transparent” continues to push boundaries in rewarding ways.

“What’s next?” We still can’t wait to find out.

Grade: B+

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Comments

Adam

“Jay Duplass does a lot with a storyline that repurposes elements from last season (though one episode basically turns Josh into a tool used to discuss topical issues).”

This was infuriating to read, assuming you’re referencing what I think you are.

That was a huge moment for the show — having an ostensibly heterosexual, cisgender character share a moment of intimacy with a trans character — played by a trans actress, no less — without suggesting there was something unusual or extraordinary about it, or that one of the characters was acting out of fetishistic desire.

Considering who Josh is (and who he represented in that moment), the interaction was spot on — maybe even too kind to the character. And the dressing down he received was both poignant and necessary. Because to Josh (to you), these are abstract, “topical” issues — things to ponder over and maybe explore further, or hold at arm’s length if you so choose — but to many people (people!) it is life, it is truth.

And as with Josh, you don’t deserve credit just for trying either.

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