“What if you had to be your own Messiah?”
That is the question posed by Rabbi Raquel Fein (the very wonderful Kathryn Hahn) in the first episode of the messy, spiritual third season of “Transparent.”
She is trying to write a sermon for Passover — the holiday frames the entire season — beginning with Raquel struggling to articulate her thoughts on Passover and ending with the Pfefferman clan all together on a cruise ship sharing a makeshift seder plate of saltines and wasabi. Raquel’s question introduces a season in which each Pfefferman strikes out on their own in search of personal freedom and fulfillment, only to find themselves forcefully reunited at sea 10 episodes later without any real answers or tidy conclusions.
The first season introduced the narcissistic, wealthy Jewish Pfeffermans as they grappled with the coming out of their parent, Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor, who just collected his second Emmy for the role), as a transgender woman. In the ambitious, time-bending second season, the Pfeffermans exploded their existing relationships as they pursued selfish quests of self-discovery, while their arcs were interwoven with gorgeous flashbacks to 1930s Weimar Berlin. This season is quieter and sadder, lacking the narrative drive that made season two so bingeable.
In the premiere, “Transparent” turns its full attention to Maura, with Raquel as a framing device. Maura is working at an LGBTQ+ hotline when she gets a distressed call from a young transgender woman from South Los Angeles named Elizah (Alexandra Grey). When Elizah hangs up abruptly, Maura decides to seek her out. What follows is a fish-out-of-water trip to a South L.A. swap meet that reads like a stand-alone short film, a series of missteps by Maura that underscores creator Jill Soloway’s latest obsession — intersectionality.
Soloway’s handling of intersectionality is earnest but clumsy. She never quite articulates what she means beyond the fact that the Pfeffermans are enormously privileged and often insensitive to issues around poverty and race. It’s an important point but is integrated awkwardly into the season, at one point it is literally spelled out Wheel of Fortune-style during a hallucination sequence. Soloway’s interest does lead to a greater, necessary amplification of non-white, non-cis voices this season, especially because Maura is played by Tambor, a cis white man.
One of the strongest call-out moments of the season comes from Shea (Trace Lysette), a transgender woman (played by a trans woman) and Maura’s former roommate. Josh (Jay Duplass) invites Shea on a roadtrip to visit his son in Kansas, and along the way they stop at an abandoned water park — a lovely indie-rom com moment that is broken when Josh insensitively makes Shea feel like a curiosity, not a person. “I’m not your fucking adventure!” she screams, and she could be speaking to any of the Pfeffermans, who consistently try on new identities and try out new people with a callous disregard for their feelings.
The eldest Pfefferman child, Sarah (Amy Landecker), has a season that comes closest to an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the more comedic cousin of “Transparent.” Everything that could go wrong does for her as she alienates the temple board with her abrasiveness, Rabbi Raquel with her half-hearted hipster spirituality and her BDSM partner Pony (Jiz Lee) with her lack of boundaries.
Maura’s youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffman) spends most of her screen time avoiding her older girlfriend Leslie (Cherry Jones) and seeing God in a series of technicolor nitrous trips at the dentist’s office. “Transparent” usually succeeds when playing around with structure, but the nitrous trips fall flat and the digression is unfortunate because Ali is often the core of this show — big-hearted, empathetic, but unaware of her many faults.
The loveliest arcs go to Raquel and Pfefferman matriarch Shelly (Judith Light). Raquel is quietly grieving the loss of her child last season and experiencing a crisis of faith. Every one of her scenes is heartbreaking and perfect. Even her Malickian walk through the woods in the first episode, complete with spiritual voiceover, works thanks to Hahn’s performance.
Then, there is Shelley who has decided to create a one-woman show about her life, “To Shell and Back.” What at first seems like a one-off joke about an older woman getting a Twitter account quickly becomes a powerful reclamation of narrative agency for Shelley, who has a childhood trauma revealed in an incredible flashback episode directed by Andrea Arnold — perhaps the best episode of the season. The finale ends with Shelley, singing a surprisingly gutting, triumphant cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.”
In its third season, “Transparent” asks a lot of big questions and answers none of them. It is frustrating and less satisfactory in a lot of ways than its second season, but the numerous moments of melancholic grace are a reminder that “Transparent” is one of the best shows on television. “Transparent” flirts dangerously with self-congratulatory meta and gauzy pretension, but its complex spirituality is genuine. And still, the show’s ability to find full humanity in every one of its deeply drawn characters is transcendent.