Three episodes were screened for review.
Screening a group of episodes from a TV show at a film festival would have made very little sense as recently as 5 years ago, but shows like Transparent make this arbitrary line between movies and television essentially disappear. TIFF’s inclusion of the first three episodes of the show’s third season as part of their Primetime program meant experiencing it in a theatre with an audience, and it felt as much at home in this environment as any other piece of work screening at the fest. Not only that, but this setting makes its cinematic qualities easier to appreciate thanks to the size and scope afforded by a proper cinema auditorium.
Its novel modes of presentation – the fact that it’s Amazon Prime’s flagship show, in addition to screening at film fests – are just some of the reasons this show feels like witnessing something of a revolution. Creator and visionary Jill Soloway has no interest in hiding or showing any embarrassment about her desire to ignite a revolution with her work, either. Hearing her speak on her vision of the female gaze, as she did in a keynote address at the festival, which I would highly recommend watching or listening to in full, is enough to inspire even a cynical cis male to take up whatever the feminist version of “arms” would be, and become a strong ally for the cause.
The show itself makes summaries of its plot feel peripheral, like providing descriptions of what happened is a meaningless task dictated by the patriarchy, but nevertheless, I’ll mention that season 3 dives back into the world of the Pfeffermans by focusing its attention on Maura for an entire episode as her work with an LGBTQ crisis hotline forces her to confront her own privilege as an upper class white trans woman. A revolutionary feminist show would be nothing without a depiction of intersectionality at work. The episode lands her in the hospital, and not the quality of hospital she would prefer. The subsequent episodes focus more on the siblings: Sarah is looking to increase her involvement at the temple and fostering her friendship with Raquel; Josh, now separated from Raquel, is finding it difficult to maintain an interest in his work; and Ali is realizing that her honeymoon phase with her teaching position may be coming to an end.
Add to this the fact that their mother Shelley has dreams of a one-woman show about her own “transition” experience, and there’s enough low key personal drama in the new season that feels urgent enough for the audience to care, but still familiar enough to be relatable to the real world of real people. It can’t be said enough that the work by the cast of this show is excellent, from Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffman as the three siblings who make you forget they’re not siblings in real life, to Judith Light, Kathryn Hahn and guest star Alexandra Gray, playing the young trans woman who is the first to call Maura at the hotline. Jeffrey Tambor is the centerpiece of course, and he’s masterful here once again, but it’s the natural chemistry of the ensemble that makes the specificity of this show, which could keep many of us at a distance, feel completely involved in their lives as if we know them ourselves.
The three-episode arc comes together in a party for Maura’s birthday. It features an argument that encapsulates why Transparent works on such a deep level: the depth of its empathy for its characters. This isn’t a show that just pays lip service to the fact that its characters are people – it fleshes them out so that even when they disagree and fight, it’s not difficult to find yourself as an observer identifying with both sides. It’s a show that simultaneously gives representation to people and ideas that tell people who identify specifically with them that they are valuable and have layers too, and that they matter, but also allows those who don’t necessarily see themselves represented on screen to relate to and empathize with characters that seem different from them. “Empathy as a political statement” is what Soloway calls this. It’s a show that depicts the unavoidable loneliness of being a person, and counters it with the reassurance that we’re all lonely here together.
Transparent’s status as a revolutionary show would not be as compelling (still compelling, but not in the same way) if it wasn’t bolstered by strong and innovative formal work. Its musical cues are as good as they come, and the realness of its scenes between actors doing exceptional work is accentuated by the fact that it feels like the camera is equally involved in the scene, making us feel present, as though we feeling with the characters we’re watching rather than observing. It relies on feeling rather than a sense of “oh, I see what you did there, yes, very good!” The way it does this is still a mystery. I chalk it up to the genius of Soloway though, who is televising her own revolution. Television’s best show is no longer confined to TV.
Transparent looks to be going in more interesting directions this season, but with just as much empathy as usual.