They say things get better with age, and while that may not necessarily be true of most of the characters on Amazon's Transparent, it's certainly true of the show itself.
With its third season debuting on Friday, Transparent — like its central character, Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) — is finally starting to feel comfortable in its own skin. While Seasons 1 and 2 were good overall but struggled to maintain quality from episode to episode, Season 3 is solid from start to finish, with 10 episodes that beg to be binge-watched and then leave you wanting more.
As Maura, Tambor continues to shine. Maura's struggle in Season 3 is less about her identity, and more about the bigger-picture next steps she needs to take in order to lead the life she wants to live. And whether it's a function of the storytelling or the fact that Tambor has now spent three years inhabiting the character (probably a combination of both), Maura seems more at peace with herself in Season 3, and less awkward.
At the same time, viewers may find themselves feeling less sympathetic with her in this set of episodes, as it becomes clear that she can be just as selfish as her children, if not more so. This is especially true when it comes to her relationship with her ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light, who remains the show's underrated, unsung MVP).
And speaking of the children, there aren't any weak links in the storylines for Josh (Jay Duplass), Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and Sarah (Amy Landecker) either. You'd think it would perhaps be frustrating to see these adults perpetually stuck in the weeds of narcissism and arrested development, but for now it's still entertaining - and, at times, hilarious. In Season 3, they're at least all trying to be better, even if they're mostly unsuccessful.
When Transparent premiered in 2014, it was groundbreaking in its depiction of a trans woman (an older trans woman, at that) as the center of a story, rather than on the fringes. Now, as trans people are becoming more visible in media and entertainment, Transparent continues to tread uncommon ground in its exploration of ideas like intersectionality and religion. "It gets Jewisher" in Season 3, to use creator Jill Soloway's words, with subplots including Sarah's decision to run for the temple board, Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) helping Sarah in her exploration of spirituality, the Pfeffermans gathering for a Seder, and multiple discussions about the "Lamed Vovniks," the 36 righteous people who, according to Jewish legend, are meant to save the world.
The third season is also buoyed by the fact that it's relatively flashback-free, save for one episode that looks back on Maura and Shelly as children and young adults. Gone is the Season 2 conceit of flashing back to Maura's mother and grandmother living in Berlin in the 1930s (though we do see them, albeit in America and with a nice twist thrown in). While the flashbacks were interesting on one level, they eventually started to bog down the present-day storyline, and the benefit of devoting more time to the current characters is undeniable in Season 3. Though there's a tragic lack of Tammy (Melora Hardin) this season, other tangential characters including Shea (Trace Lysette), Vicki (Anjelica Huston) and Buzzy (Richard Masur) get their dues with decent-sized storylines.
Of course, Transparent is at its strongest when all of the Pfeffermans are together, which is why the Season 3 finale, featuring the family taking a cruise together, is a particularly special treat. The last episode, "Exciting and New," includes an amazing scene that I won't spoil here, except to say that Judith Light is a goddess on any stage, large or small.
The overarching theme of Transparent Season 3 is various characters finding and/or rediscovering their voices (sometimes literally), in order to tell their own stories. Soloway says she envisions the show lasting six seasons. "They're just really beginning the major part of their journey now," she says of the characters she's created. "Seasons 1 and 2 were like the first act. ... I think the dream would be that after six years everybody would be like, 'Oh, we finally got it.' That they aren't just falling into total narcissistic accidents of encounters over and over again. That they start to see themselves and see other people and care for other people."
In Season 3, they're getting there.
All 10 episodes of Transparent Season 3 will be available Friday on Amazon.