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'Transparent' returning to changed TV landscape

Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura is still more, though, than just one more trans woman on TV.

Judith Light (left) and Jeffrey Tambor in a scene from Season 2 of Amazon's "Transparent," which will be released on Dec. 11, 2015
Judith Light (left) and Jeffrey Tambor in a scene from Season 2 of Amazon's "Transparent," which will be released on Dec. 11, 2015Read moreAmazon Studios

TRANSPARENT. Friday, Amazon.

When "Transparent" premiered on Amazon last year, Caitlyn Jenner hadn't yet had her Vanity Fair closeup, and the story of 70-year-old Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) revealing herself, at last, to those who knew her only as Mort put the dysfunctional-family comedy in a class of its own.

Or at least to those transgender people who identify as female.

On Friday, "The Danish Girl," starring Eddie Redmayne as one of the first recipients of sex-reassignment surgery, opens in theaters here, with Redmayne, too, playing someone who was raised male and transitions to life as a woman.

"It's kind of mind-blowing about how our culture has sort of caught up to Trans 101," "Transparent" creator Jill Soloway told reporters last summer, adding that since the first season, she'd added a trans woman writer who's "really allowed us to tell a story for Maura that comes from her own place of subjectivity . . . There's millions of different ways to be trans and Maura is just one way."

That's important, because what too many portrayals of trans women I've seen recently seem to stress is the physical details - hair, makeup, clothing - of womanhood, an approach that risks making it seem as if being female simply boils down to a willingness to be uncomfortable in the name of fashion.

I think it's more than that, and I believe that most of these women, real and fictional, think so, too (although it probably doesn't help that Jenner, who spent all those years keeping up with the Kardashians and doesn't appear to be particularly introspective, has become the public face for a group of people whose circumstances are mostly very different from hers).

But even if TV, or even "Transparent," hasn't yet completely nailed the true meaning of gender (whatever that is), it's been interesting to watch someone like Jenner - or Maura Pfefferman - walk away from a lifetime of male privilege, as if unaware that it might not be entirely portable.

Meanwhile, "The Danish Girl" shows Redmayne's character, a celebrated young landscape artist in 1920s Copenhagen, leaving behind painting along with her former trousers, eventually taking a job as a shopgirl.

Mort's mostly a memory this season in "Transparent," detectable only in an occasional flash of the retired academic's arrogance, even as Maura tries to come to terms with some of the ways she exercised her former authority to deny women their due.

I thought I spotted Mort, too, in Maura's reaction to an acquaintance's dispassionate assessment of her physical shortcomings, a bit of rudeness someone who'd lived 70 years as a woman would probably have encountered more than once.

Tambor continues to wow, especially in the moments when his character's least sure of herself, but now that we're past the warm fuzzies of Maura being embraced by the people who may actually love her more than they did Mort, she's a little less the central focus of Season 2 (which also includes occasional flashbacks to 1933 Berlin whose meaning will eventually become clear).

Judith Light gets more much-deserved face time (and at least one revelatory scene) as Mort's ex, the newly widowed Shelly, while their three children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) star in their own dark comedies.

And yet it's in these supposedly adult children that we repeatedly encounter the parent they now call "Moppa." Maybe Mort and Shelly's unhappiness over the lies they told themselves and each other crippled their kids emotionally. Or maybe the Pfeffermans are congenitally incapable of settling.

As Maura enters the "now what?" phase of her transition, her children seem determined to snatch heartbreak from the jaws of happiness, in ways that are sometimes funny and sometimes aren't funny at all.

"I think what's signal this year and what's brilliant about this year is Maura is more not the central figure, but sort of the gateway figure now for so many stories that are evolving from this decision to be authentic," Tambor told reporters last summer.

"And I think that's kind of what where we're throwing down and saying, 'Will you still love me if I change?' "

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On Twitter: @elgray