Transparent’s hateful characters are hard not to love

Sarah and Tammy’s wedding is the focus of the first episode of season 2 of 'Transparent'
Sarah and Tammy’s wedding is the focus of the first episode of season 2 of 'Transparent'

There’s one line in the pilot episode of season 1 of Amazon’s Transparent that perfectly sets the stage for the show’s unfolding drama.

Protagonist Maura Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, at 68 is beginning the process of coming out as a woman to her three adult children and ex-wife, all of whom know her as Mort, their father and former husband. She is sharing her feelings at a support group.

Coming to terms with the profound self-centredness of her progeny, Maura wonders aloud, “How did I raise three such selfish kids?”

The question highlights the irony that’s at the heart of Transparent: all the members of the Pfefferman clan, on whom the show focuses, are distinctly tone-deaf to the ways in which their actions affect others, each believing completely in the primacy of his or her suffering.

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The first season, which streamed in 2014, starts to explore the complex dynamics of this highly damaged family and sees Pfefferman siblings Sarah (played by Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), as well as their mother Shelly (Judith Light), coming to terms with Maura’s transition to a woman. But season 2, which began streaming Dec. 12 on Shomi, delves more deeply into the ways the characters inflict emotional wounds on one other and those around them, all the while enamoured of their own individual perceived sense of victimhood.

It may sound horrible, but show creator Jill Soloway, whose inspiration for the concept came from her own father’s coming out as transgender later in life, does a brilliant job of tempering her characters’ hatefulness with just the right notes of humour and poignancy, making Transparent both utterly entertaining and deeply satisfying to watch – and this is to say nothing of the show’s interesting exploration of gender politics.

Season 2, in particular, is hilarious and horrifying from the very start, showing in near equal measure the outrageous lengths the Pfeffermans will go to serve their own interests as well as the depth of pain each experiences.

The first episode features the wedding day of the eldest sister, Sarah, who has recently left the father of her children for her lover, Tammy, with whom she betrayed him.

With all of them dressed in pristine white (again, Soloway prods at the irony of the Pfeffermans’ blind attempts to absolve themselves of their many transgressions), the family poses for a photography session that is cut short when the photographer refers to Maura as “sir.”

The physical beauty of the lavish outdoor wedding, set in the hills of Los Angeles, is offset by the fact, made increasingly clear to the viewer, that Sarah has realized she’s made a terrible decision.

The episode comes to a hilarious head when Sarah ditches the horah and is found hiding in a bathroom stall weeping to sister Ali that not only does she not want to be married to Tammy, but that she “hates” her.

When Ali summons their brother Josh and his Reform rabbi girlfriend Raquel (played by Kathryn Hahn) to help deal with the crisis, Raquel, who officiated at the wedding, informs Sarah that she hasn’t yet sent the requisite papers to the city and Sarah and Tammy aren’t actually married.

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“Well, what’s a wedding then?” Ali sputters, to which Raquel responds wearily, “A very expensive play.”

Giddy with relief, the sisters explode in laughter, while Raquel – frequently a casualty of the Pfeffermans’ insensitivity – looks pained.

The joke is further played out in a later episode, when the siblings attend a party at Maura’s house and are excited to find the leftover wedding cake in the fridge – they promptly add it to the buffet table.

While watching Transparent is a bit like watching a train wreck, its perfectly timed dark humour and emotional depth make it hard not to love.