Transparent Season 2 Review: Amazon's Best Is More Ambitious Than Ever

Few shows were as praised in their respective first seasons as Transparent, Amazon's Golden Globe-winning dramedy series. The show scored a tremendous 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (for whatever that's worth), topped numerous critics' lists (including mine), and was routinely described with the kind of adjectives people typically reserve for cable shows about difficult men. As one of the first significant scripted series on American TV (or the Internet) focused on a transgender person, Transparent predictably and rightfully attracted attention as progressive, revolutionary, and necessary. Likewise, the idiosyncratic, personal vision of showrunner/director Jill Soloway fit perfectly into the industry's promotional discourses, functioning as a female auteur who brought "indie film" and "cinematic" sensibilities to TV. 

What happened with the conversation surrounding Transparent's first season is the same thing that happens with most TV shows today: we went too far. This was my absolute favorite show from 2014! Season 1 is one of my most beloved seasons in recent memory. Nevertheless, while the show's representation of transgender people is wonderful due to its nuance and warmth and ability to avoid hackneyed clichés about underrepresented people, it is difficult to ignore the criticisms of the show for casting a cis white male (Jeffrey Tambor, who is fantastic) in the leading role. It's also tough to simply set aside that, in the back of the first season, Tambor's Maura felt increasingly marginalized so that the show could tell relatively familiar tales about her privileged children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann). Or that Season 1 featured very few non-white, non-wealthy characters. Or, finally, that Soloway is a fantastic director but buzzphrases like "indie TV" and "cinematic" further perpetuate bad cultural and taste distinctions between TV and film. 

This all prefaces my actual review of Season 2 because, having now seen all 10 episodes, I suspect that these talking points will only circulate further. Transparent can't recast its leading performer now, but it does seem as though Soloway and company are just as aware of the criticisms of the show as they are the praise. These 10 episodes are, without a doubt, more ambitious than the first batch—in subject matter and social commentary, in perspective, and in visual style. As many of the characters explore, deconstruct, and reconstitute their identities, Transparent itself takes on a more exploratory gaze, bouncing from the privileged world of Pacific Palisades all the way back to another kind of sexual revolution occurring in early 20th century Germany. The show is also more unabashed in its embrace of feminism and portrayal of non-normative female bodies, contrasting mightily with most of the rest of TV.

What works best about Transparent's interest in the history of sexuality, expression, feminism, and repression is embedded into the season through various characters' personal discoveries, awakenings, and academic pursuits. Season 2 is particularly significant for Sarah and Ali, whose complicated desires respectively turn more confusing and more liberating as the episodes unfold. Sarah's tumultuous relationship with Tammy (Melora Hardin) takes an even more tumultuous turn in the season premiere, resulting in yet another mid-life crisis for the formerly composed mother and wife. Meanwhile, Ali grows increasingly empowered by her commitment to a particular romantic relationship—that is, until she comes into the orbit of a radical feminist and famous professor played by Cherry Jones

Between the Pfefferman daughters alone, the show manages to even-handedly address kinks, trauma, and the communal bonds between particular minority or marginalized groups. Though Sarah and Ali are going through some stuff, the show seems even better at treating those experiences as honestly as possible. At times, you'll be frustrated by their antics; at other times, you'll feel their pain or confusion as your own. But there's never a sense that these non-normative experiences are being shown simply for exploitive or titillating purposes. While Transparent was never really either of those things in Season 1 either, it does even better by the characters as they occasionally stumble around and try to find the identity that best fits.

The show is similarly improved in its acknowledgement of privilege. Tambor's Maura could still be more prominent in her own show, but there's some great stuff in Season 2 addressing what it means for a wealthy, white, male professor from Southern California to decide to transition. Maura faces some harsh realities when confronted by her past actions as a powerful member of the patriarchal enterprise at Berkeley—where, as Mort, she marginalized the radical feminist movement led by Jones' Leslie—and when she further embeds herself into the life of Davina (Alexandra Billings), her expert guide to all things trans. Unlike the first season, Transparent now demonstrates the difficulties that both lesbian and trans women have in finding everything from safe spaces to securing the financial and emotional support they need to live their desired lives. 

This privilege is also increasingly broken down as Season 2 unfolds, with Maura continuing to struggle with important life things like having a steady place to live. Early season episodes smartly highlight what would happen if she moved back in with ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light), who is alternatively infuriatingly self-absorbed and unbelievably compassionate, only for that to implode when the former couple realizes that they can't go back to the past. The show also uses Tambor's real-life "masculine" features to nod towards Maura's discomfort with her body and the criticisms she receives from a few transamorous men in her orbit. These things probably won't—and shouldn't—satiate those who feel that this show's supposedly transformative nature would be more pronounced with a non-cis white dude at the center, but they at least acknowledge that even previous privilege only goes so far once someone joins a marginalized and ignored minority group. 

By conceding some of the notable critiques of Season 1 and embracing its exploratory and progressive sensibilities, Transparent is, in my mind, a better show in Season 2. Those improvements join up with what was already a great and specific story about a dysfunctional family. Though this season features much more of the characters off on their own stories—I haven't mentioned Josh and rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), who don't handle early moments of the pregnancy particularly well—the actors are supremely comfortable in those stories, leading to a better and even more well-rounded ensemble. This strategy means that when the entire extended Pfefferman clan comes together, like the tremendous opening sequence of the premiere, the tension and rhythm is even more satisfying. For a show somewhat driven by characters withholding truths big and small from each other, Transparent features one glorious, heated, air-it-all-out family conversation after another. 

To her credit, Soloway is really a fantastic visual stylist. The extended opening take and concluding tracking shot from the premiere are likely to be the buzziest compositions, but the show's direction (Soloway doesn't direct every episode, but she's created a fantastic and flexible formula) always seeks out happenings or bodies in the foreground to enliven the sequence. Though the show is noticeably dramatic, it's not over-reliant on close-ups and instead framed with medium-length and two-shots that still emphasize the mindset of the characters. Moreover, the show's soundtrack and score continue to be one of the two or three best around, but it manages to punctuate a number of important sequences with absolutely no music at all, only for the patented keys to trickle in eventually. 

Transparent doesn't fix all its problem spots in Season 2—there's even fewer people of color in this season, somehow—and those extremely frustrated with it and the praise surrounding it in Season 1 probably won't be entirely satisfied. They shouldn't be, especially given the laudatory response from critics and the industry, full of people who surely feel good about promoting a show with Transparent's subject matter and ideological slant. But as someone who loved Season 1 and also recognized those frustrations, this show, separate from the Twitter conversations or New Yorker profiles, is better, more aware, and more compelling than it was in the first season. That might not be satisfactory progress for everyone, or worth the sheer degree of praise it'll receive, but it's still really damn impressive.

All 10 episodes of Transparent Season 2 will be available on Friday, December 11 on Amazon Prime. Stream the season premiere right now, if you'd like. 

Comments (26)
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Dec 23, 2015
I think the critics are afraid to criticize this show, still waiting for one critic to admit that this season was really bad.

They are over analyzing the show to find its 'inner beauty', but a good show should also be interesting on the surface rather than a bunch nonsensical nonsense with insufferable characters.
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Dec 14, 2015
It's a great show, complex and nuanced and realistic. I think I'm gradually appreciating it more over time and I think I liked Season 2 a little better than Season 1.

It's interesting that some of the commenters below feel that Maura took a back seat in Season 2. I agree with Cory instead that Maura was featured more in Season 2 and we got to dig a little deeper with her.

The German stuff was a nice surprise this season, the historical context just gave the show a new level. And it did feel like a little more philosophical about feminism, lesbianism and trangenderism than the previous year that seemed more about the kids' depravities.

Plus any show that can make Rafi seem like an actual person is doing a pretty incredible job.
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Dec 14, 2015
I do not know where to begin. I LOVED Season 1 of Transparent, I had to force myself to finish Season 2 and while there were some good moments, I am amazed at all the glowing reviews online from critics. Did they watch another series by the same name?

I was here to continue "Maura's Journey". Instead, Maura seems to have made cameos while we dove into lets just say the "very dark side" of each of her children... and things I didn't need to see nor did any viewer. I also didn't need my the wonderful Cherry Jones naked in a hot tub or doing some of the other things I witnessed.

Was season 2 about the fringes of lesbianism and celebrating it and kinky sex or about a what the show is supposed to be... a transgendered woman in her 70's learning how to carry on with life with their family adjusting to the changes also?

I am lost. So lost.

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Dec 13, 2015
Wow, where to begin with Season 2? I enjoyed Season 1, and promptly binged on Season 2. At the risk of being politically incorrect, but this has turned into Jewish Horror Story? Before I am accused of being a racist, I have many Jewish friends, none remotely resembling the Pfefermans. Transparent has become a caricature of Jewish neuroses, its Woody Allen on acid.

Exactly who in this show am I supposed to care about? or relate to?

Season 1 showcased Jeffrey Tambor and his talent, but in Season 2 Tambor takes a backseat and allows his family to dramatize their sexual confusion. Who isn't fucked up in this family? What are the odds?

Season 2 makes the mistake of being more interested in extreme sexual dilemmas or revelling in including “cock” or “cunt” in the dialog, than in the characters themselves. Which is unfortunate.

And do we really need to drag the Holocaust in? Please.
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Dec 12, 2015
Wish there were more episodes. Jeffrey Tambor was outstanding, as usual, but Gaby Hoffmann and Michaela Watkins were standouts. All main and supporting players were flawless. Pay and cable television wishes it were this good - with the exception of Getting On, shat on by HBO.
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Dec 12, 2015
Almost at the end. What a shame, since Amazon won't produce another Season for who knows how long. Meanwhile, crap like Manhattan and Fargo and The Affair keep chugging along their crap track.

You blood and gore advocates should really catch Transparent, it's magnificent.
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Dec 12, 2015
Did you really put crap and Fargo together in the same sentence???
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Dec 12, 2015
Bosch is Amazon's best, or Ripper Street if Amazon UK is included, Transparent is ok but nothing special IMO.
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Dec 12, 2015
Agreed, I love Bosch. But if you want to add Amazon UK shows, Catastrophe is the best. I liked the first season of Transparent better than the 2nd, at this point Mozart in the Jungle is funnier and The Man in the High Castle is better.
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Dec 12, 2015
I hate children/babies/pregnancies so I'll pass on that one thanks ;) I agree The Man in the High Castle is extremely good, haven't seen Mozart yet though.
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Dec 12, 2015
While I agree that Transparent is brilliant television, I think it is the most depressing show currently on the air. There is no happiness to be found anywhere with any of the characters. Very bleak. Life can be hard, but it sure seems very hard for the Pfefermans.
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Dec 14, 2015
Interesting, I don't find it bleak at all. I find there are plenty of moments of levity.
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Dec 12, 2015
Season 1 was refreshing and good television, season was honestly boring and lost the magic the first season had.
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Dec 14, 2015
I so agree. I loved season 1, I was lost and confused as to what happened to their core of the story in season 2.... it should have been called "Maura's Really Distrurbed Children". Sigh.
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Dec 12, 2015
Do you need happiness in your television? Sometimes life is shit. Transparent, like Six Feet Under, is brilliant at showing the shit and brilliant at showing the luminous moments.

Getting On was brilliant at the same, but the morons at HBO killed it, just as the morons at the BBC killed the British version.

Curious, no one complains about the totally gratuitous violence and blood and gore and boring story-lines and uninteresting acting in the likes of Vampire television, or American Stupid Hotel or whatever it's killed, or Fargo, or the motorcycle bloodshed that went off the air, or the MASSIVE violence against women in Game of Thrones, or the Walking Dead crap, or the legions of useless violent badly written and acted and directed shows SO popular with the troglodytes in the viewing audience.

But hey, salciccia his own.
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Dec 12, 2015
Hey, Getting On season 3 is brilliant television.
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Dec 12, 2015
Geez, all I was doing was sharing an observation. I like the show, I watch the show, I just find it depressing. There is a sadness in all of the characters. And no I don't need happiness in everything I watch. And yes I will miss Getting On. Stopped watching Fargo Season 2 after a couple of episodes. The quirkiness in the movie and S1 just wasn't there in those first two episodes - maybe it showed up later. Gotta say I am loving Jessica Jones and thought Mr. Robot was very good television.
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Dec 12, 2015
Don't take it personally. My experience has been that wudntulik2know doesn't respond so much as he flames. Pick any issue, any opinion, and he's likely to respond with venom and profanity. It's not you.
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Dec 12, 2015
This comment has been removed.
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Dec 11, 2015
Transparent Season Two is magnificent.

They pulled off what Homeland, The Affair, and even the exquisite Manhattan (Season One) could not - make a wonderful show continue to be wonderful.

With the exception of Getting On, of course, which got shat on my HBO.

Jeffrey Tambor is outstanding.
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Dec 12, 2015
Manhattan season 2 is amazing. Transparent season 2 lost all it's magic, yes Jeffrey Tambor is amazing, but the this season was beyond boring to watch.
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Dec 11, 2015
This article has been up for 11 hours and has only 3 comments, 2 of which are spam. What kind of screwed-up algorithm puts this as the top story for so long with so little interest?
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Dec 11, 2015
Because people with a brain realize what a magnificent show it is.

And those without a brain watch Fargo and Game of Thrones and the Horror Hotel something or other.

That's why.

Don't worry, you don't have to watch Transparent.
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Dec 12, 2015
I wasn't insulting, and I'm not worried at all. I'm not commenting on the quality of the show, but on the lack of interest. Typically, articles that get lots of hits and comments pop to the top of the list. This one looks more like it got stuck there more as critic activism.
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Dec 11, 2015
because it's a good article!
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Dec 12, 2015
(1) You just might be biased there, buddy. (2) Not criticizing the quality of the article; just questioning the choice of top article compared to interest of the user base. Article's been there a full day now. Less than 10 comments. No favorites. A whopping 845 members in the community. It may be the best article that has ever appeared on TV.com, but it still misses the audience.
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Dec 11, 2015
I just started watching this (first 3 eps of season 1) and it's great. Good article Cory. And now I have 17 more episodes to look forward to.
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