When former Inquirer writer Buzz Bissinger made the media rounds after penning the Vanity Fair cover piece announcing to the world Caitlyn Jenner's transition, reporters kept asking him how much he knew about transgender issues before working on the story. (I know, because I was one of those reporters.)
He didn't know much, he told me and others he talked with, but what he did know he learned from Amazon's Transparent, the second season of which debuts Friday.
Transparent was one of the first shows to present a transgender person as a human being - not comic relief or crazy, but a member of a family whose decisions affect not only her, but everyone else in her orbit.
Bissinger, along with myself and the others who devoured the first season, will be happy to know that Transparent's second season is even more visceral, real, and funny than the first. Jill Soloway's dramedy introduced us to Maura Pfefferman (Emmy-winner Jeffrey Tambor), who comes out as transgender to her increasingly self-absorbed family.
The second season also pushes the boundaries of how transgender people are represented on TV, continuing to make Maura a deeper, more complex character, and the rest of her family along with her.
Maura's transition is no longer the dominant focus of the series, although she is still navigating how to live her new, or rather renewed, life. Maura is portrayed as a sexual being with needs and wants.
It's a storyline that feels very real for anyone entering a new chapter of life, whether it be a newly out gay person or a newly single person or beyond. How do I do this again? How do I relearn this part of my life as a whole new person?
The second season immediately and perfectly announces itself (Amazon released the first episode last week, if you're dying for that Pfefferman fix). The Pfefferman clan is attempting to pose for family photo to celebrate the wedding of daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) to Tammy (Melora Hardin). Everyone is dressed in pristine white, but they can't stop arguing, with each other, with the photographer. It's reminiscent of the first-season finale of Modern Family, in which the Pritchetts and Dunphys begin in white clothes and eventually get covered in mud, leading to a family bonding moment.
But the Pfeffermans don't get dirty on the outside. They complain and kvetch and add family members (the ex-stepdaughter, the new son, the girlfriend), but it's not working. Any smiling group photo all in white would be a document of exactly who the Pfeffermans are not - a traditionally happy family. They are a unit, but they are not happy. Soloway, who created the show, writes and directs, and she draws this scene out through one perfect, unbroken, four-minute shot. There is no narrative thread to be discerned yet, only snippets of dialogue. It's a gut-punch of a scene, telling without saying anything explicit.
This scene, this one four-minute stretch, is television at its best.
But this scene does more than dramatize the plot of the episode, called "Hora Kina." It also alerts the audience to what's to come in the episodes ahead. That long, uncut initial scene does not focus on one character. It focuses on the entire Pfeffermans.
There's Joshy (Jay Duplass), adapting to life with his newly discovered teenage son and girlfriend, Rabbi Raquel (the fabulous Kathryn Hahn); the constant outsider Ali (Emmy nominee Gabby Hoffman); and ultimate Jewish matriarch Shelly (Judith Light), who has welcomed Maura back into her home. This is a season about them all.
Much of the first season focused on Maura because her struggle to come out to her children was the main dramatic thrust. In this second season, Tambor continues to do an incredible job with her. But Soloway has created too intricate a tapestry of other characters not to explore them outside of Maura's story. She is still the thematic basis for the show, but the second season has now broadened out into more of an ensemble production and is richer for it.
Soloway and her team have a talent for creating characters who, while apparently awful and self-centered, are nevertheless inherently watchable. Sarah, for one, is so adrift that she cannot decide whether she wants to be married or not, making the decision at the last possible moment. She can be completely self-absorbed, and, yet, for some reason, we still root for her. She's impossible to hate because her narcissism - the way she follows her desires, no matter how destructive the consequences - actually helps free her from a life in which she was miserable.
Sarah is never let off the hook, either: At every turn, she encounters reminders of how truly terrible she can be. And yet we end up liking her and wanting to see what happens to her.
One of Transparent's great assets is its ability to tie present to past. In the first season, Soloway flashed her audience back to Maura's earlier life, caring for her kids (or rather, not caring enough for her kids) and beginning to accept that she is transgender decades before she comes out as such.
Season Two uses the same flashback method - but now we are transported not to Maura's earlier life, but to 1933 Berlin, right before Hitler fully comes to power. A Pfefferman cousin in the present day, dancing the hora at Sarah's wedding, is dreamily transported back to this Weimar era, as the camera follows a woman in a gauzy dress, played by Philadelphia-born transgender model Hari Nef. Bradley Whitford, who played Maura's crossdressing friend Marcy in the first season, appears as a new character. The woman in the gauzy dress returns as a specter surrounding the Pfefferman family.
As much as Transparent's great theme is the acceptance of the new lives we and our love ones lead, it also concerns the way former lives, our own and others', affect how we live now.