Transparent is radically selfish, and that's why it matters

The show's world is expanding, but the Pfefferman family's neuroses remain its core

Transparent’s second season is at its best when its ostensible heroine is being torn down by her friends, mentors, and contemporaries. “We don’t all have your family. We don’t all have your money.” That’s Davina (Alexandra Billings), the trans woman who’s guiding Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) through her new life and giving her a place to stay. “I’m a 53-year-old, ex-prostitute, HIV-positive woman with a dick.” It’s a piercing, justified bit of realness — Maura has just insulted her long-time lover, fresh out of prison and complicating their living situation — and it helps to explain the show’s resonance and power beyond its initial premise. Maura isn’t a saint, and she’s not a martyr either; she’s condescending, secretive, obstinate, emotionally manipulative, and blinded by privilege. At the end of the show’s first season, she asks daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffman), “If I didn’t give you any money, would you even talk to me?” It might as well be Transparent’s version of Mad Men’s famous “That’s what the money is for!”

This has been a landmark year for trans narratives in popular culture because of characters like Maura and conversations like these. It’s not enough to include trans characters who are the subjects of medical fascination or heroic, doomed cardboard cutouts; they need to be just as real, complex, and flawed as their cisgender counterparts. Transparent understood that requirement from the jump, and it remains at the show’s core even as it’s becoming more diffuse and less focused. The show’s world is expanding, but Maura’s solipsism — and the ripple effects it has on her family and the people around her — remains its heart.

Transparent’s first season was necessarily internal: it had to lay out Maura’s decades of dissatisfaction, the Pfefferman family history, their tangled web of relationships and temporary alliances and simmering feuds. If it felt intimate and specific to the point of painfulness, that’s because it was coming from something real; creator Jill Soloway was inspired by her own parent's — her "moppa," a term also used within the show — transition. (Soloway herself is cisgender, notable in a climate where cis creators and performers have been criticized for their cannibalization of trans narratives. Transparent’s staff includes trans writers, actors, general staff, and consultants.) Having laid a solid foundation, the second season begins to stretch. Maura starts to explore what it means to be feminine on physical and sexual levels; Josh (Jay Duplass) tries to build his own strange family with rabbi girlfriend Raquel (Kathryn Hahn, a beacon of sanity in a familial maelstrom); Ali tries to quiet her own internal turmoil by diving into feminism and her family’s past.

The Pfeffermans are unimaginable without their egocentrism, but it also presents the show’s biggest problem: at what point is their selfishness no longer entertaining? Ali and Maura’s storylines remain engaging because their self-interest drives them into challenging, compelling scenarios. Ali’s existential dissatisfaction compels her to question her identity, her sexuality, and her fidelity, problems that are interesting because they don’t have easy answers; the scene in which she dons a strap-on for a series of mundane household chores is one of the season’s funniest and most subversive sequences. Maura’s past can’t stop running head-first into her new life. She looks for kinship in the feminists she used to stonewall and can’t understand their reticence when it comes to embracing her. She can’t help but wield the wealth and power she accrued before transitioning. The selfishness of other characters only serves to make them seem callous — Sarah (Amy Landecker), taking refuge in fantasy — or pitiful — Shelly (Judith Light), handling loneliness poorly.

transparent season 2 maura shelly

Transparent’s radical suggestion is that choosing to transition is an inherently selfish act. That word’s been used with malice to describe the lives of transgender people who’ve struggled with disconnection and sacrifice their entire lives; it can be dangerous. The show doesn’t use it that way. It’s depicting transition as such a fundamental, bone-shaking act of self-determination that there’s no use pretending or compromising in its wake. It explains Maura’s lingering haughtiness and the way she treats Shelly; it explains Davina’s reaction when Maura tries to butt into her life and question her decisions. And it explains the behavior of all the other Pfeffermans, too: they follow Maura’s lead.

That kind of objective, empowering selfishness colors this year’s other pieces of trans-centric entertainment; it makes their characters richer and motivates them. In the gritty, garish Los Angeles of Sean Baker’s Tangerine — a document of the city just as vital as Transparent’s lush, moneyed Silver Lake streets — people fight, fuck, and extort because that’s what it takes to survive. Its heroines don’t hurt each other out of spite; they do it because it’s what they know. The fascinating E! reality series I Am Cait — a close-up look at the evolving life of America’s most famous trans person, Caitlyn Jenner — is at its weakest when its focuses on Jenner’s cloying, practiced activism. When it zooms in on her failings as a parent and friend — her refusal to acknowledge the pain caused by her Vanity Fair piece, her obsession with surface-level femininity — it’s fiery. (The trans women who walk her through this process — the academic Jennifer Boylan, the actress Candis Cayne, activist Blossom Brown — are the show’s breakout stars.)

When Transparent threatens to topple over from the weight of its characters’ self-obsession, it returns to family. Its first season ended with a tense dinner that dissolved into laughter at the purity of Josh’s corn-fed teenage son; parties and potlucks make for pivotal scenes. They hurt other people and each other and find forgiveness together. The same is true in Tangerine, a movie that ends with a unique display of compassion and forgiveness; it’s there in I Am Cait too, whether Jenner is making amends with the Kardashian side of her family or sharing with her new support group. The cycles of transgression and absolution present in each of these releases are raw, real, and universal, and they’re only possible because of the complicated, nuanced people at their cores. That solid center is what’s keeping Transparent alive even as it’s becoming a show about something more.

Transparent's second season premieres December 11th on Amazon Prime Video.