New Television — From the April 2016 issue

New Television

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The first season of Transparent aired in 2014. In the spring of 2015, Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic decathlete and popular reality-television star, came out as a trans woman. Nearly 17 million people watched the 20/20 interview in which Jenner made the announcement. Soloway has said that these developments changed the way she approached Season 2 of Transparent, which was released in November. “I think the world has caught up with Trans 101,” she told E! Online. “We get to just tell stories and let Maura be a little more vulnerable and let her be a little more of a screwup and not have to be the perfect character.”

Jenner’s coming out also gave Soloway the confidence to take a more critical view of certain aspects of identity politics, such as the cumbersome jargon and the competing narratives of self-righteousness. Throughout its second season, Transparent reveals the ways in which new ideas about gender and sexuality sometimes reproduce the cruelty and the exclusionary practices that they seek to remedy. The show is at its best when satirizing the new dogmas and pseudo-philosophies that are presented as alternatives to the traditions of family and religion. In this sense, Soloway’s vision is less radical than it is liberal; she wants to reform, rather than reinvent, society.

The season begins, fittingly, with a wedding. Sarah is marrying her new girlfriend. If Tammy’s name and bad taste in interior decorating hadn’t already tipped us off, we realize that she is doomed as soon as Sarah begins to walk down the aisle. The ceremony is a parody of the post-religious wedding, with its efforts to rid itself of all traces of patriarchy and inequity while still maintaining gravitas. Sarah looks like she has dressed as a corpse bride for Halloween, the guests have all been asked to wear white, and the reform rabbi gets proceedings under way by saying, “In the words of Meshell Ndegeocello.”

Tammy, of course, has written her own vows. (“To make love to you, to make up love with you.”) As they are being recited, Sarah looks up and sees a prop plane trailing a banner bearing the URL webuyuglyhouses.com. Later, during “Hava Nagila,” she has a panic attack in the bathroom. Josh summons the rabbi, Raquel, whom he’s recently begun dating. She determines that it’s not too late to cancel the wedding. “Jewish-wise you are married, but, I mean, legally you’re not, yet,” she says. “So what is a wedding, then?” Ali asks. “It’s a ritual, it’s a pageant,” Rabbi Raquel says. “It’s like a very expensive play.”

This episode is titled “Kina Hora” — Yiddish for “evil eye” — and over the course of the season the Pfeffermans do seem to fall under a curse. Josh, who has gotten Rabbi Raquel pregnant, is unable to muster even a semblance of duty or compromise when their relationship falls apart. Jay Duplass excels at playing a person who is incapable of reckoning with his emotions. If the other characters spend too much time investigating their every feeling, Josh reminds us of the perils of the unexamined life. His beard, which gets ever more unkempt as the season progresses, signifies a cancer of the soul. He is beset by a series of catastrophes until, in the eighth episode, we find him doubled over by the side of the highway having a breakdown. “You’re a spiritual person,” he is told at one point. “You just don’t have a practice.”

While experimenting with her newfound lesbianism, Ali blithely tramples on the feelings of her best friend, Syd (Carrie Brownstein), who has been secretly in love with her since eighth grade. The fluidity of sexual orientation is treated casually on Transparent. When a man asks Sarah whether the reason she won’t go out with him is that she’s gay, she looks annoyed. “I mean how do you even know, really, if you’re gay?” she asks. He suggests deciding on the basis of which genitals you think of when you’re falling asleep at night. This doesn’t work for Sarah, whose sexual fantasies are about getting spanked.

For her part, Maura discovers that having suffered doesn’t make you immune from inflicting pain on others. She confronts the privileges that were conferred on her in her life as a man, and her own capacity for hurtful judgment, which alienates both her ex-wife and her best trans friend. The show explores the conflicts between the trans movement and radical feminism when Maura and her daughters attend a fictionalized version of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, whose rules stipulate that attendees be “womyn born womyn.”

The critic Vivian Gornick wrote that “in great novels we always feel that the writer, at the time of the writing, knows as much as anyone around can know, and is struggling to make sense of what is perceived somewhere in the nerve endings if not yet in clarified consciousness.” Transparent demonstrates that even if we have mastered the basics of identity politics, nobody has quite figured out the best way to integrate new formulations of identity into old institutions. One of the show’s strengths is the way that it distributes the most offensive lines among its characters — no one has a monopoly on insensitivity. Conversely, no one has suffered so much that he or she is beyond reproach. Now that we are all free to be you and me, Soloway suggests, perhaps it is worth consulting religion, which may have more than oppression to offer. After Sarah seeks guidance from a life coach, a marriage counselor, a pot dealer, and a dominatrix, she is shown, in the final episode of the season, entering a synagogue.

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