In 2015, no show has a better sampling of musical choices than Aziz Ansari‘s brilliant Master of None, with a wide breadth that included The Animals, Beach House, Peter Rock and CL Smooth, and X-Ray Spex, amongst others. But in its second episode, Transparent‘s funny and thoughtful second season gives Ansari’s series a run for its money in this particular realm of creative expressiveness. Following an emotionally devastating uproar at a hip pool party, where Josh (Jay Duplass) was attempting to sign an indie-folk band he’s been managing, the Pfefferman family scatters, with Sarah (Amy Landecker) heading off to lick her wounds following a falling out with Tammy (Melora Hardin) and Jay considering the family life with his rabbi partner, Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). Elsewhere, however, Gaby Hoffman‘s Ali and Jeffrey Tambor‘s Maura attempt to release their respective torrents of frustration, aggression, and sadness through music, and the soundtrack beatifully transitions from a party where Ali enjoys the sardonic funk of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” to Maura beginning to dance her cares away to Sia’s popular rager “Chandelier.”
Both songs preach the necessary venting that radical physicality, specifically rebellious dance, lends the human spirit, and how these acts are at once enabled by the expressiveness of music and are, in their very being, acts of art. And there’s a consistent sense in the second season of Jill Soloway‘s runaway-hit series that similar acts of voicing one’s honest, if not always fully considered opinions, allows for a crucial, beaming emotional release. And this is not to say that the new season, which begins with Sarah and Tammy’s catastrophic wedding day, doesn’t also consider the damage done to others when one tends to their personal emotions with such devotion. Like Lena Dunham‘s increasingly insightful Girls, Transparent is deeply concerned with the thin line that exists between the path to self-assuredness and a philosophy of self-obsession, which may not even occur to those who are attempting to truly find themselves.
In essence, Maura’s full transformation by the end of Season 1 of Amazon Studio’s only truly great show had caused all of her family members to reconsider their own definitions of being self-possessed and knowing who they are. Once a hipster playboy who thought of nothing but the next big thing in music and the most attractive girl he could bed that night, Josh now seems to be on the verge of becoming a full-blown family man, with his unknown progeny, Colton (Alex MacNicoll), considering spending his last year in Los Angeles with his new dad and a newly pregnant Raquel. For her part, Sarah completely abandoned her troubled marriage to run after Tammy, who was also in a relationship at the time, who she comes to outright dislike by the end of the first episode of Season 2. And finally there’s Hoffman’s Ali, who continues to experiment in a myriad of ways, leading her to now reconsider a relationship with her close friend, Syd, played by terminal scene-stealer Carrie Brownstein.
As the show makes clear, however, changing who you are on the outside, your exterior behavior in public and private, only gets you so far in the hopes of totally coming to terms with yourself. When Sarah escapes her wedding to sob and panic in the bathroom, Raquel reminds her that the ceremony itself is just pageantry, and that the legal part of the marriage hasn’t even been fully completed as of yet. The ceremony may very well be the most public and communal part of a marriage, but it’s not what legally binds two people together and, ultimately, its all spectacle. Conversely, the wedding and reception are what speaks to what the people involved hope to be, what they desire beyond the confines of the facts and scientific details of who they are, and finally what they envision their life together as being.
In this small exchange, Solloway gets at the very essence of the show, which boils down to a rigorously well-argued and unerringly fair-minded discussion of a life ruled by emotion vs. a life ruled by reason. But this is exactly the kind of program that should not be boiled down, and which takes every chance to let its narrative cup run over with idiosyncratic nuances of personality, gestural acts of expression, and wildly inventive turns of story, including some wondrous use of flashbacks. When Colton announces that he wants to spend the rest of his high school career in Los Angeles, Raquel and Josh have a quick exchange about how great the idea is, but as Duplass and Hahn are such ingenious performers, there’s an entire other, far more concerned conversation going on with their eyes, body language, and delivery.
Moments like this, which are consistently strewn amongst scenes and sequences, give Transparent a distinct liveliness in its physical and verbal exchanges, a pulse of experience that helps assure that the show isn’t merely a delivery system for admirable, progressive politics. Maura’s continued awakening is the heart of the show, and her struggles become all the more complex in Season 2, especially in her relationship with her ex-wife, Shelly, played by a perceptive Judith Light, whom she now lives with again. Her issues, however, are never put above those of her family, and the show’s unkempt, astoundingly honest view of these relationships never suggests that a true calm will ever come, or that any of these people will ever be fully in control of their desires. These characters and this show remain so relatable and endlessly fascinating because they are constantly in the eye of the storm, grappling with big issues in the messy present, and when the show does go back, such as an exhilarating flashback to 1933 Berlin, its not to explain part of the story but to reflect an energy of life in the Pfeffermans and their kin, a tradition of wild exuberance and hunger for the world at large that no amount of indifference, bigotry, or cynicism can temper.
★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Transparent Season 2 will be available for streaming in full starting December 11th.