In the not-so-distant past, a hit show spent years and years being a hit. In the post-ratings world of Peak TV, watercooler shows accrue their buzz quickly and then start to shed it, a comet streaking across your screen of choice, rarely as bright as it was at the start. It hardly matters if a show stays consistently great or even improves: There’s only so much time human beings have for television—at least less than there are hours in the day—and as with everything else, we take special notice of that which is new. A show as good as Transparent, a series that cannonballed into the TV pool with such a splash it single-handedly established Amazon as more than a big-box store, may be as wonderful as ever, but a third season, debuting Friday, is still a third season. Buzz, like champagne, goes flat.
Well, screw blasé feelings about continued excellence: Season 3 of Transparent is as excellent as ever, still better than pretty much everything else on TV, and exceptional in ways that are intrinsically tied to it being a third season. Our knowledge of Los Angeles’ Pfefferman clan is so developed we are able to track the minute alterations in behavior that mark real change. This season of Jill Soloway’s traumedy does not have the ambitious structure of the last, in which youngest daughter Ali Pfefferman’s (Gaby Hoffman) soul-searching was entangled with the story of her great-aunt Gitel (Hari Nef), born Gershon, a transgender woman in Weimar Germany who did not make it out of Nazi Germany alive. But in a more straightforward way, give or take a flashback episode and a couple laughing gas–induced hallucinations in a dentist chair, the season takes on that bugaboo of television and life: change, and whether or not it is really possible.
The season begins shortly after last season left off. Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), now in a committed relationship with Vicki (Anjelica Huston), decides that she is going to transition further, pursuing plastic surgery and vaginoplasty. Transparent, while wholly devoted to trans representation, has never been simplistic about what it means to be trans, exploring issues in all their thorny difficulties. Vicki is reluctant for Maura to get surgery, preferring Maura as she is. We are so accustomed to thinking of you’re perfect just as you are as an expression of love—but what if who you are is not who you want to be? Don’t change a thing about yourself is sweet, unless it’s oppressive. But the show doesn’t just question Vicki, it questions Maura, and the irony is that someone who knows to the tips of her transgender toes that one’s biological body is not the be-all and end-all of her identity can become fixated on perfecting her biological body.
Maura is entranced by the idea of transitioning as progress. But this season explores all the ways that progress doesn’t necessarily mean moving forward but sometimes looking back, bottoming out, staying in the same place. Ali, in a serious relationship with the Eileen Myles–inspired Leslie (Cherry Jones), has matured beyond all expectations. Graduate school suits Ali, gives her a purpose and a calling and a place to think expansive thoughts about how intersectionality might be the face of God. But Ali’s still capable of hiding out, helping others as a means of helping herself, tending, for example, to her brother Josh rather than confronting her ambivalence about Leslie. Once the most cringe-inducing Pfefferman, she is now the least—moving forward, but leapfrogging feelings she will have to return to.
Sarah (Amy Landecker), meanwhile, remains the Pfefferman-iest of the bunch, by which I mean the most consistently narcissistic and likely to be mistaken for an actress in a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. She is once again co-habitating with Len (Rob Huebel), her ex-husband, so that they can raise their kids together while seeing other people. Sarah is newly energized about Judaism and organizes a kind of hipster Shabbat with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), while sparking with Len, ignoring her BDSM partner’s safe word, and occasionally raging out. She’s energetic, charming, hyperactive, self-obsessed, and terrifying, slowly working her way around to the idea that she might want back into her stable, hetero marriage, progress even if it means going back to where she started from.
Bottoming out are Josh (Jay Duplass) and Hahn’s Raquel, split up and grieving. Hahn, not strictly a Pfefferman, remains in the cast despite the end of her and Josh’s relationship, perhaps a tipoff about Raquel and Josh’s future (one can hope, anyway), and definitely a comment on Hahn’s indispensability. Even distraught, her Raquel is kind and outward-looking in a way the Pfeffermans will never be. Grieving her last-season miscarriage, she struggles to reconcile her faith and her life—and to give Transparent a reason to shoot in a Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, and an exceedingly rare ball in Jewish-TV bingo.
Duplass, his uneven stubble giving him the hint of a mustache, looks remarkably similar to a distraught Charlie Chaplin, and he spends the season in a kind of silent-movie sadness, perpetually in or near tears. Casting about for other people to rescue him from his grief, he takes a road trip to visit his biological son Colton (Alex MacNicoll), raised by devout Christians in Kansas. Once there he haphazardly accepts Jesus and makes plans to stay, as if change, any change, will make him feel better. Josh’s despondence is real and deep but potentially productive. Depressed, disgusted with everything in his life, Josh finally sees clearly that he wants a family of his own.
This leaves Shelly (Judith Light), who so often gets shafted by her children and the show, and who here, gets the climax. Shelly is impossible and irritating, a person you feel bad for even as you find her unbearable. As the season begins, she’s still with Buzz (Richard Masur), a doting partner with no money who encourages Shelly’s every whim. The two concoct a plan to create a one-woman show for Shelly, To Shell and Back, which alongside Shelly’s newfound social media obsession—she has 100 Twitter followers, so she can really get Sarah’s taco Shabbat some attention—seems exceptionally ill-advised. But in a flashback episode that focuses mostly on Maura’s childhood—and gives a cutting, poignant backstory to Maura’s relationship to her now-pathetic and despised sister—we learn that Shelly has a secret too, one that powerfully reframes her.
In the last episode, the Pfeffermans are on a cruise ship, which must be a wink at both sitcom vacation episodes and David Foster Wallace, Shelly performs the part of To Shell and Back, that includes, I am certain, the most moving and triumphant rendition of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” that will ever exist. Light’s performance is so astonishing, it feels like watching magic: There’s no way this moment gets from script to screen without a little transcendence. There she is, the same, but transformed.