Like many shows, Transparent begins with a credit sequence. You could take it at face value: gorgeous shots of celebrations intermingled with images of drag queens, a nostalgic piano tune tinkling over it all. But look closer and you begin to understand that this is actually a lesson in something deeper. It includes a scene from a 1968 documentary on “female impersonators,” a clip from a viral video of a boy “becoming” a man–and vogueing–at his bar mitzvah, and other scenes that depict family rituals intersecting with gender in its various forms.
Transparent follows the Pfeffermans, a Jewish family in LA, and the repercussions of its patriarch Mort coming out as a woman named Maura. Like its credit sequence, you can take Transparent at face value, sitting back and watching Maura navigate her a late-in-life transition, from deciding whether she wants to undergo surgery to forming a chosen family beyond her blood relatives. But its layered title hints at its deeper story. Not only is a trans-parent finally allowing the world to see who she really is, but the Pfefferman family’s own opacity begins to crumble, and we learn what they reveal about themselves, what they hide, and how their secrets inevitably come tumbling out.
The series is loosely based on show creator Jill Soloway’s own family and parents, one of who came out as trans when she was in her 70s. As such, Soloway treats the Pfefferman family with a gentle touch, despite their flaws. She intentionally avoids trans cliches–like Maura looking at herself in a mirror and crying–and allows all three Pfefferman children to explore their own sexuality, some of which is prompted by self-reflection after Maura’s transition, some before Maura even comes out. But, though sex and gender is an important part of the series, it’s not necessarily the most interesting (or chaotic or messy) thing about the Pfeffermans as each of them come to terms with anxiety, intellectual turmoil, confused relationships, career trouble, family, spirituality, and cycles of trauma.
It’s no wonder that the show has earned 21 Emmy nominations and eight wins. If you haven’t dipped your toe into the Pfefferman family pool, now’s the time to see what the buzz is all about. [Eds. note: In order to avoid confusion, when referencing scenes prior to Maura’s transition, notably during flashbacks, we will refer to her as Mort and use the pronoun “he.”]
Number of Seasons: 3 (30 episodes)
Time Requirements: With 30 half-hour episodes, you could easily make your way through Transparent in a week or two–or, if you have nerves of steel and are immune to others’ anxiety, you could even pack the whole series into one mega-weekend spree.
Where to Get Your Fix: Amazon Prime
Best Character to Follow: The Pfefferman family is like a solar system: Each member has its own planetary rotation, but Maura is the sun around which everyone revolves. Still, there’s much to love (and hate) in the indomitable seeker Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), man-child Josh (Jay Duplass), and snarky matriarch Shelly (Judith Light). Look at Amy Landecker’s IMDb page and you’ll realize she’s been in, like, everything–but after seeing her dark, hilarious take on Sarah, you’ll wonder where she’s been all this time.
Keep your eyes peeled for some amazing secondary characters, too. It’s impossible to call them all out individually, but we particularly love the eternal optimist Rabbi Raquel (Katherine Hahn); dark-humored Barb (Tig Notaro); straight-out-of-a-Christian-Abercrombie-ad Colton (Alex MacNicoll); and radiant, tragic Gittel (Hari Nef). And the world needs more of the totally stunning Shea (Trace Lysette).
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Watch them all. Seriously. But, twist our arm…
Season 3: Episode 1, “Elizah” Maura violates the number one rule of working at an anonymous call center: She tracks down the distressed young trans woman who dials in from south LA. Watching the Pfeffermans come unglued virtually every episode can be unnerving to say the least–but watching Maura wander around a swap meet with a broken shoe, losing her purse, and getting taken away for a 5150 feels unbearable. Props to the woman at the swap meet who, offended by Maura asking if she and her friend have seen someone “on the streets,” explains, “I’m a student and these two are getting their nursing licenses.”
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “Pilot” The Pfefferman children wake up–Ali is alone, Josh is in bed with a younger woman, Sarah is getting her kids ready for school–and all are obsessed with their own current state of affairs. It’s not until about a third of the way through the episode that they go to their father’s house in the Palisades wondering what he has to tell them. Mort is, of course, planning on coming out as trans. But he loses confidence in the moment when he sees how self-involved his children are. Unfortunately, the moment is later taken out of his hands when Sarah, hiding a secret of her own, sneaks into his house and discovers Maura.
Season 1: Episode 2, “The Letting Go” If you’re a crier, the first scene, which picks back up in Maura’s bedroom, will get to you.
Meanwhile, Ali is hooking up with her hot trainer and Josh pseudo-proposes to his pregnant girlfriend with a ring from a great aunt who died in a concentration camp:
“What is that?”
“It’s my Tante Gittel’s ring. I’m pretty sure she died in the Holocaust.”
“Ew? Ew to what?”
“Ew to the Holocaust?”
“No girl wants to get proposed to with a ring that came from the Holocaust.”
That ring may seem like a cursed family heirloom, but it’s actually a Chekov’s gun. Pay attention to it.
Season 1: Episode 3, “Rolling” Sarah tells Len that she’s leaving him for Tammy. Like Maura’s coming out, there’s no big argument about what she’s going to do or why, just a declaration. When Len suggests therapy, she tells him that that’s not an option for her anymore and, just like that, their marriage comes to an end. Ali tries to have a drug-fueled threesome (it doesn’t go as planned, duh) and, after Josh’s girlfriend reveals that she had an abortion and doesn’t want him as a manager anymore, he tries to throw a chair out his office window. So basically: The Pfeffermans at their finest.
Season 1: Episode 5, “Wedge” Rabbi Raquel shows up on the family’s doorstep at the worst possible time–Ed, Shelly’s husband who suffers from dementia and has lost his ability to speak, has gone missing, sending Ali into a tizzy, but everyone else is kind of like, “meh.” Naturally, this chaotic moment is exactly when Raquel, mothering and kind and well-meaning sort that she is, starts to get pulled into Josh’s web. When he begs for her to help the family, you know this isn’t going to end well. But you know what does end well? Ed showing up at the house with a half-eaten cotton candy and an incredible caricature.
Season 1: Episode 6, “The Wilderness” Ali and bestie Syd (Carrie Brownstein) audit a women’s studies course whose professor (Jill Soloway!) has some hilarious lines including, “The masculine insists to cut things up with exclamation points, which are in and of themselves small rapes.–the way an exclamation point may end a sentence and say, ‘Stop talking, woman.'”
The siblings grasp at what Maura’s coming out means for them–Ali develops a crush on a trans teaching assistant, Sarah has to explain Maura’s transition to her (super-sweet, wonderfully open-minded) children, and Josh searches for info about trans women online and lands on a webcam site. Later, Maura performs the Shabbat ritual of lighting the candle, typically reserved for the mother of the household, for the first time. The moment is disrupted by Len, who crashes dinner and mocks the women sitting around the table with his children. He’s upset by being excluded from his family and his pain, though expressed in the worst way possible, is understandable. Maura steps up and shuts him down.
Season 1: Episode 7, “The Symbolic Exemplar” The kids disappoint Maura–and, frankly, us–when they walk out on her rendition of “Somebody I Used to Know” with Davina (Alexandra Billings) at the LGBT center talent show. Naturally, the kids, distracted by relationships and weed and whatever other garbage they store in their self-centered brains, can’t cope with her hinting at her past and becoming a new person. We also see the first moment of true disassociation. When Ali first goes to her trans boyfriend’s house, she sees it as a rustic, masculine retreat in the woods. But, upon returning post-talent show, she realizes nothing was as it first appears.
Season 1: Episode 8, “Best New Girl” Our first slow burn with the show’s flashbacks! In the 1990s, Mort escapes to a cross-dressing retreat with his friend Mark. At first, the retreat exemplifies why safe spaces are so important for queer and marginalized communities–and it’s not the last time we’ll see a queer person come into their own in a place where they can be their true selves and, quite literally, end up dancing with ecstatic joy. In some ways, the retreat acts as a foil for the wimmins’ festival later in Season 2, but it ultimately turns out to be very similar–a mirage of an inclusive, welcoming environment that turns out to be gender binary even as the participants themselves believe they are open-minded and forward-thinking.
We also get a better look at the relationship between young Josh and Rita, one he says was based in love but which others on the show have called out as assault, and at 13-year-old Ali, who finds herself in a very strange situation with an older guy.
Season 1: Episode 10, “Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?” The title refers to the Jewish tradition of covering mirrors after a funeral, but also, of course, refers to the Pfefferman family’s inability to truly look within, despite how obsessed they all are with themselves. In this episode, the family bids farewell to sweet, endearing Ed. His funeral gives the show a good opportunity to get the whole gang together. Sarah tries (and fails) to hook up with Len and ends up proposing to Tammy to alleviate her rejection. Ali tells Raquel that–surprise, surprise–Josh is a womanizer. And Rita reveals to Josh that she secretly gave birth to and adopted out a child, Colton. Josh is, of course, the father. We hope you can grapple, because we’ve got lots of cliffhangers.
Season 2: Episode 1, “Kinda Hora” The first scene is an excruciating–and utterly perfect–three minutes of arranging a family photo before Sarah and Tammy’s wedding. Choice line from Shelly: “I was hopped up on diet pills! That’s why the house was so clean.” This episode marks the beginning of this season’s flashbacks to the transcendent, tragic story of Rose and Gittel in pre-WWII Berlin and, as this story develops, the opening credits also start to morph and expand.
Season 2: Episode 2, “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump” The meaning of this seemingly cutesy episode title is, uh, not so cutesy. Maura has now moved in with Shelly and their boundaries start to blur. You might not like watching the bathtub scene (or, hey, maybe you do, whatever floats your boat), but it’s a good reminder that older people are humans and, as such, have sexual needs. Sarah, on the outs with Tammy, sports an exhausted face and the most haunted eyes in television history. Syd and Ali finally get together, which is thrilling, but also, RUN, SYD! RUN WHILE YOU STILL CAN! Tammy gets drunk and takes a cue from the Pfeffermans about never letting anyone else have the spotlight.
Season 2: Episode 3, “New World Coming” We could listen to Maura botch “yas, kween” all day. Maura and Ali encounter Leslie, a feminist scholar from UCLA–who, as it turns out, Maura-as-Mort academically iced out while at Berkeley. It’s the beginning of Maura confronting her own biases and the privileges that she’s held.
Season 2: Episode 4 “Cherry Blossoms” Ali becomes interested in epigenetics, the idea that trauma can be passed down through generations. For the Pfefferman family, that means cycles of shame and secrecy, as well as suffering the cost of truly being yourself. Meanwhile, we have a flashback of Maura’s mother, Rose, going to visit Gittel, her transgender sister and we start to suspect that the now-elder Rose may be more enlightened than her family has given her credit for.
Season 2: Episode 6, “Bulnerable” Colton’s family has whisked him away in their choir-practice-space-turned-RV, leaving Raquel and Josh unglued. When something goes horribly wrong with Raquel’s pregnancy, Josh acts like an insensitive turd. And, as she should, she dumps his sorry ass, leaving the house while he’s off at an industry party. We’re sad for Josh, but so happy for Raquel, who is wonderful and deserves the whole world. Ali shows up at Leslie’s house to talk about her grad school application and ends up smoking pot naked in Leslie’s hot tub. Because that’s what you do with professors you’re trying to impress, right?
Season 2: Episode 9, “Man on the Land” Ah, the magical, terrible world of the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival. Sarah and Ali drag Maura along on their adventure, and it actually goes well at first. There are lots of bare breasts and women in weird, leather, strappy items. There’s a tampon-making workshop and song lyrics about going into the forest to “menstruate on a stick.” Even The Indigo Girls are playing. Feminist heaven, right? Ali, broken up with Syd, can finally make a move on Leslie. Sarah follows a dom named Pony and her “naughty doggy” (again, Jill Soloway) into a BDSM camp and figures out that she’s finally ready to get punished. But, though Maura seems entranced by this new world of femininity that she’s stepped into, another woman at the festival (Anjelica Huston) casually informs her that trans women are not allowed. Maura, understandably, starts to panic. Everything comes to a head in an encounter with Ali, Leslie, and Leslie’s crew. On the one hand, the women bring up some interesting points: Prior to her transition, Maura experienced the many privileges of being a man (including, ahem, being a part of a group that intentionally excluded Leslie). But what they don’t see are the ways that they are now becoming oppressors themselves by turning their own privilege (as wimmin-born-wimmin) against trans women. This is perhaps Transparent’s single best episode and it tackles a pivotal question that has haunted various women’s-only events and schools: What does it mean to be a woman and who has a right to spaces like this?
As Ali searches for Maura, who has fled into the forest in the dark, we see scenes of Gittel being rounded up by the Nazis at the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute (which was a real place!) with the heartbreaking “Waiting” by Alice Boman playing. So, yeah, this is a heartbreaker. So if you’re looking for something to give you good feels amid the intense emotions, look out for a cameo by Sia.
Season 2: Episode 10, “Grey Green Brown & Copper” Finally, some relief for our beloved Pfeffermans! Vicki and Maura, with their imperfect bodies, turn out to be a perfect match for each other. (At least, for now.) The Pfefferman children are loveliest when they are together in private and not performing for others. The trio pull off one of the series’ most heartwarming, nostalgic scenes as they float around in the family’s pool together, diving down to mimic having an underwater tea party, like they did when they were kids.
And when Maura finally goes to visit Rose with Ali, Rose reaches for the pearl ring that Ali now wears around her neck–it is, of course, Gittel’s ring which, we now know, Rose’s mother smuggled out of Germany in a bar of chocolate. It may be too late for Maura to completely patch up her relationship with her mother, who in her old age can barely communicate, but she can begin to forgive herself and move forward as an individual.
Season 3: Episode 3, “To Sardines and Back” Maura gathers her family (blood and chosen) for her birthday and announces that she plans to undergo surgery. Naturally, she didn’t think about giving anyone a heads up about this, including Vicki. While Shae (Trace Lysette) and Davina are supportive, not everyone feels like they can deal with her revelation–particularly Shelly, who is aghast that Maura, who already copped her hairstyle, wants to be called “grandma” instead of “moppa.” After dinner, everyone (besides Maura) plays a game of sardines, which is a brilliant narrative method to get a random assortments of characters together in uncomfortably tight spaces. Ali and Sarah stumble upon Nacho, their resilient pet turtle who ran away and lived in the walls and crawl spaces of the house for decades. In addition to his shell, that turtle has a whole lot of symbolism riding on his back.
Season 3: Episode 4, “Just the Facts” Maura delights in the doctor’s rendering of what her face will look like post-op, but Vicki doesn’t seem to love the idea of Maura undergoing surgery. Meanwhile, Ali and Josh are growing too intimate for Sarah and Leslie’s taste, which prompts Leslie to call out something we’ve long noticed in the Pfefferman family: They all disassociate. They crave sex, but they can’t deal with intimacy. None of them know what they really want, what they like, who they’re attracted to, or who they really are.
Season 3: Episode 6, “The Open Road” The storyline between Josh and Shea is essential viewing. Shea agrees to go with Josh on a road trip so he can tell Colton about Rita’s death and you could cut the sexual tension between Josh and Shea with a knife. We can’t blame Josh for his attraction–after their moment playing sardines at his family home followed by seeing Shea dance at the club, come on. But she is way out of his league and you know it’s just a matter of time before she sees through noncommittal, reckless Josh. And, oh boy, does she ever. Their cutesy romantic afternoon at an empty water park comes to a screeching halt when Josh can’t deal with Shea revealing that she’s HIV positive. Shea addresses Josh’s misconceptions with one of the best lines of the series: “I am not your fucking adventure.”
Season 3: Episode 8, “If I Were a Bell” A flashback episode featuring young Maura (played by trans actress Sophia Grace Gianna) and, notably, the ring. Young Rose is played by the same actress as young Ali and, likewise, Gaby Hoffmann now plays adult Rose. It’s 1958 and, as it turns out, Rose knows that Mort hides in the bomb shelter to listen to records and put on her clothes. She supports her son and wants him to be happy but, confronted by her conservative father who brings up the cost of Gittel’s identity, Rose ends up pushing Mort deeper into the closet. The psychological repercussions of the Holocaust are also felt elsewhere. The trauma experienced by Shelly’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, colors their perspectives–and may have prevented them from discovering that she was molested by her music teacher.
At the end of the episode, we learn that Mort and Shelly first hooked up as part of an affair because, of course, this family was founded on lies and secrets.
Season 3: Episode 10, “Exciting and New” The Pfeffermans go on a cruise, and apparently this family thinks they can dump whatever they want into the ocean. This episode truly belongs to Shelly, fresh off her break-up with Buzz (Richard Masur), from her hilariously off-base reference to Trevor as “the gay that comes with the room” to her tremendous, heartbreaking performance of To Shell and Back.
Why You Should Binge:
At first, you may think you have the Pfeffermans all figured out. But let them catch you in their web. The longer you spend entranced by them, the more clearly you can make sense of the world they inhabit and the more complex the characters become. With such short, dense episodes, the time commitment is relatively small. And, if nothing else, you’ll now be able to chat about the acclaimed show with your early-adopter pals.
Best Scene–“This is me”:
Prep some tissues for this moment from Season 1. You have to forgive Sarah for having a momentary lapse in empathy when she asks her father if he will “start dressing up like a lady all of the time”–after all, no one was prepared for Maura to come out to Sarah in this moment, not even Maura herself. But Maura’s reaction to her daughter’s misguided question is perfect: “No, honey. All my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”
We typically think of “humanizing” TV as a show that fleshes out troubled backstory of a seemingly one-dimensional character. But Transparent takes it further, making its subjects deeply human with all their faults. Though Maura’s story is, at times, tragic and poignant, she is not deified or treated with moral exceptionalism for being trans. Maura makes mistakes and is often very, very wrong. She still carries all of her old baggage–her propensity for secrets, the ways she failed her children, her difficulties with intimacy–with her.
Because that’s how life works: One does not come out and instantly become a saint or a martyr. Even in her literal moments of coming out, Maura can seem like a steamroller crashing through her family’s life. She’s been pushed down too long, she’s here now, she’s doing what she wants, and, whether or not any of this is your fault, you better get out of the way and hop aboard.
Other characters also dance with sexuality in a way that’s true to real life, but which we rarely see on TV. And when queer actors are objectified (such as Shea at the strip club), we get a reversal (her confronting Josh about being a real person). We see trans characters leading normal lives, going dancing, singing in pagents, attending yoga classes, and dealing with all the crap anyone else has to deal with. When you’re done watching Transparent, it feels astonishing that including these characters and treating them with compassion is what makes the show so radical–and it reminds us of precisely why we need more stories–everyone’s stories–on TV.
If You Liked Transparent You’ll Love: This is Me, Togetherness, Orange is the New Black, I Love Dick, One Mississippi, Casual, Catastrophe, and The United States of Tara.