In 'Transparent' season 2, change comes slowly, but it is beautiful to watch

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

There is no American border as perilous as the one separating self-knowledge from self-absorption and, as the second season of Amazon's "Transparent" proves, no one charts it as fearlessly, humanely and thoroughly as Jill Soloway.

"Transparent" debuted last year with a deceptively simple, albeit revolutionary, hook: Well into middle age, transgender woman Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) finally decides to live her authentic life as Maura.

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The joy and terror of Maura's transition, beautifully expressed by Tambor, provided the ecstatic fuel of the first season, but Maura's truth reverberated throughout her family, causing each member to question his or her identity. The tightly wound Sarah (Amy Landecker) abandoned her "perfect" marriage to pursue her college girlfriend Tammy (Melora Hardin); Josh (Jay Duplass), a music producer, attempted to escape the confines of perpetual childhood; professional waif Ali (Gaby Hoffman) first emulated then tried to understand her "Moppa's" life, while Maura's ex-wife, Shelley (Judith Light), was forced to reconsider the "meshuga" bits of her first marriage.

"Transparent" is undoubtedly one of the richest and most ambitious half-hour comedies ever, and given television's new standard of excellence, that's saying something. It is a tale of transition, a deconstruction of gender, a story of family and, in the second season, an exploration of faith and history.

But more than anything, it bravely takes on the often infuriating modern notion of self. Who are we really, separately and together? How much of that is real and how much imposed by expectation, social direction and circumstance? What do we owe ourselves, the people we love, society in general?

And most important of all, how does one search for personal truth without collapsing into narcissism?

This last question is crucial to a society in which the exultant echoes of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" often seem to have dimmed into a culture of self-narration and scathing commentary, in which "personal pain" has become shorthand for political entitlement.

It's certainly a question that drives the second season of "Transparent" in which each Pfefferman wrestles with bravery, brattiness and the dangers of an overly examined life.

As if to make her intentions immediately clear, Soloway opens the first episode, which Amazon made available earlier this week, with a wedding. Sarah and Tammy's wedding.

But this is no #lovewins celebration, this is your basic "tyranny of image over reality" wedding. Roses and gilt decorate the dessert, everyone is clothed in white, and the ceremony is overshadowed by the creation of an extended family portrait, the logistics of which are guaranteed to make children cry and everyone hate the bride, in this case Sarah, who is clearly having second thoughts.

It may be the best symbolic use of overblown ritual since the Communion party in "Godfather II."

The wedding also provides a smorgasbord of exposition. We learn that Josh is now involved with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), who is pregnant, that Sarah is just as lost as she ever was, that Ali is taking herself more seriously as a person, that Shelley has reconnected with Maura and that Maura is no longer the center of the story.

Oh, and through a series of flashbacks to 1920s Berlin, we see (perhaps), the tap root of the Pfefferman present.

It's a bit of a mess, this first half hour, what with Sarah having a breakdown and quick jaunts to the Weimar Republic, but it gives "Transparent" more elbow room and the episodes that follow take full advantage.

Though still heroic in her decision, Maura is more fully realized, a woman who can be selfish, judgmental and who, having lived for so long as a man, has been guilty of the same prejudice she now faces. (Cherry Jones shows up as a splendid feminist poet to make this point, and a few others.) Maura's relationship with Shelley twists and turns on itself, allowing Shelley a bit more humanity and the excellent Light much more screen time, which benefits everyone.

But it's the Pfefferman children who now struggle to live authentic lives. They are all so obviously wounded and selfish, emotional hypochondriacs whose pain is real but mostly self-inflicted. The flashbacks to Berlin may offer some explanation (and certainly a tutorial on the Weimar era and anti-Semitism) but as Maura is discovering, revelation is not change. Change is change. It comes slowly, with effort, and it is maddening, and beautiful, to watch.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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