Are the Pfeffermans America’s Jews?
Is “Transparent” the most Jewish show on television?
It sure seems so to me.
The second season of the multiple-Emmy-winning dramedy is now streaming on Amazon, and the Pfefferman clan is even more Jewy than it was in the first season — and that is really saying something. In that launch, 70-year-old Mort Pfefferman came out to his family as a transgender woman. His divorced wife and three adult children struggled hilariously to come to terms with this news, and with their new “Moppa,” as well as with their own complicated sexual lives. Sex is a big deal in “Transparent”; it reveals character to the viewer as well as to the characters themselves.
In the first season, the Pfefferman’s middle daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker), left her husband to begin a passionate affair with a woman she had known in college. Music producer Josh (Jay Duplass) broke up with the middle-aged teacher who had seduced him in high school to pursue a shy young rabbi (Kathryn Hahn). The youngest child, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), began the series by inviting two young black men into a threesome while ignoring her old college roommate’s obvious crush. Everyone — not just Mort — is on a journey to discover who she or he is, and sex is the preferred Pfefferman vehicle for that exploration.
The Pfeffermans are contemporary American Jews, not particularly observant (though they do kiss mezuzot and go to shul on Yom Kippur) but infused with Jewishness. Unlike the Jews in Woody Allen’s films, they are not uncomfortable or conflicted about their identities. They are way past that. Actually, the parents carry traces of that discomfort, but their children don’t. When Ali accuses Maura and Shelly (Judith Light) of not caring enough to make her celebrate her bat mitzvah, they are mystified about why she would complain. Of course, her feelings of neglect go further than their not forcing her to learn her parshah, but her sense of loss is real.
The second season of “Transparent” begins with a Jewish wedding that goes disastrously wrong. Sarah is about to marry her girlfriend, Tammy, but a change of heart at the last minute leaves everything in turmoil. Josh’s sweetie, Raquel, provides an out that enables the bride to leave her bathroom stall. Then she has to face the guests, who are holding the chair to hoist her up. A marvelous “Hava Nagila” where everyone dances caps the celebration.
The rest of the season isn’t nearly as funny as that first episode, but it is profound in surprising ways. Moving away from the nuclear family to introduce us to a larger, extended mishpachah allows the series’ creator, Jill Soloway, to present these characters in even more nuanced ways. Maura, formerly known as Mort and brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor, has to recognize that being a woman is not just experimenting with makeup and wearing a flowy dress.
It’s much harder to lose the sense of always being right and in charge that was part of his male identity for most of his life. When a plain-speaking lesbian poet (a fantastic Cherry Jones) reminds Maura that he blocked her academic career, she is caught off guard before acknowledging the truth. Maura’s contemptuous disapproval of another transgender woman’s boyfriend earns her a stern talking to. Who does Maura think she is? Who, indeed.
Soloway takes a risk in introducing flashback scenes that move us to 1930s Berlin, but it works. Ali is able to deepen her sense of her Jewish heritage without expository speeches, and the uncovered links to the current Pfeffermans’ lives are quite thrilling. It leaves you wanting to know so much more about them, the best evidence of an exceptional artistic imagination. Soloway has said that she based the series on her own father’s coming out as transgender, but in this season Maura’s story is not central. Instead, we have a complex portrait of many different people, each existing in a web of relationships, unlike so much of our popular culture, where characters exist in isolation, except for a few friends or romantic partners. The Pfeffermans are connected to each other as well as to professional colleagues, friends, sexual partners, in-laws, estranged siblings, distant relatives, and on and on to a larger historical community.
It doesn’t get much more Jewish than that.