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Review: The Pfeffermans Are Perfectly Imperfect in 'Transparent' Season 3

Amazon's hit series "Transparent" is back, and NBC OUT contributor Trish Bendix reviews the Emmy Award-winning show's third season.

by Trish Bendix /
Jeffrey Tambor as "Maura" in Season 3 of Amazon's "Transparent"Jennifer Clasen / Amazon

Amazon’s "Transparent" has made us fall for some truly unlikable and at times unrelatable characters. The Pfefferman family is self-absorbed, to be sure, and sometimes struggles with issues that some might refer to as “high-class problems,” but in them creator Jill Soloway has explored the nuances of a collective made up of imperfect people who are not trying to achieve perfection, but happiness, and viewers have benefited from their failed attempts.

RELATED: 'Transparent' Star Jeffrey Tambor on New Season, Emmy Win

In Season 3 of "Transparent," which premieres on Amazon today, the Pfeffermans are on that continued path of figuring out what kind of contentedness is possible for them to achieve. Despite feeling like she’s making a difference working at the crisis hotline at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and having a loving partner in Vicki (Angelika Houston), Maura (Emmy winner Jeffrey Tambor), believes gender reassignment surgery will help her to feel less depressed. But when she finds out her health may stand in the way of that happening, she has to make a distinct choice about how she will think and feel about her body as is.

 (L-R) Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffmann in Season 3 of "Transparent" Merie Wallace / Amazon

Sarah (Amy Landecker) is still lost and, without a job, has a lot of free time when her kids are in school. She dedicates herself to Judaism in a newly-formed friendship with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), which doesn’t thrill her brother, Josh (Jay Duplass), who is still reeling from their split after a miscarriage ended their relationship in Season 2. Sarah’s new love for “spirituality” might seem like a positive move for her, but it’s really her grasping for something tangible to hold onto after everything else in her life—her marriage to Len, her almost marriage to Tammy, her reputation—seemed so destined and safe until they unceremoniously slipped away. Of course, Sarah behaves as if none of this is any of her fault, and Rabbi Raquel is the one to call her out on her delusions.

Josh is bored at work and misses his newly discovered teen son, Colton. He is rocked by the death of Rita, his former babysitter and lover who is also Landon’s mother, and takes a road trip to deliver the news to his son, who is now preaching in his adopted family’s very Christian church in Kansas. Another Pfefferman who doesn’t have anything to cling to, he finds himself moved by Colton’s ministry and thinks about making a move to the Midwest.

As for Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), she’s given a little less to do this season and it’s probably because she’s finally the least tortured of them all. She’s in love with her job TA-ing and with Leslie (Cherry Jones), so even when her family is maddening or she too feels that itch of uncertainty, she’s able to find some solace in the fact she’s finally found a little bit of herself. (You won’t miss Gaby Hoffmann too much, though—she also plays young Maura’s mother in extensive late-season flashbacks.)

 Judith Light as "Shelly" in Season 3 of "Transparent" Jennifer Clasen / Amazon

Shelly (Judith Light) has a large arc this season, as she’s found a way to express herself in a one-woman show, "To Shell and Back." Telling her story has given her a new strength that we find out in flashbacks has been long tempered by an inappropriate advance from her music teacher when she was a young girl. Shelly and Maura continue to have growing pains in their new roles as co-matriarchs—Shelly bristles when Maura asks the kids to call her “Mom” and Maura is less than amused that Shelly says she is also “coming out” and “transitioning” but is referring to her going public with her musings on life.

While Season 3 was missing some of our past series favorites like Tammy (Melora Hardin), Syd (Carrie Brownstein) and Marcy (Bradley Whitford), it does give us more from some recurring characters. Trace Lysette is given some delicious material as she forms a relationship with Josh that culminates in a conversation about him seeing her as an “adventure,” not something long-term or even, Shay argues, a person. Josh’s inability to look beyond his own self-entitlement and pleasure have never been more infuriating, and Shay brilliantly calls him out.

Guest appearances from out comic Sabrina Jalees, Master of None’s Lena Waithe and Caitlyn Jenner are quick but fun, and Jiz Lee’s return as Pony, Sarah’s BDSM partner, is also short-lived but surely something you couldn’t find anywhere else but on Transparent.

What fans and Emmy voters have come to expect from "Transparent" is a kind of queer, Jewish, feminist sensibility strewn by characters and storylines that are hilarious and heartwarming but also at times angering and altruistic. The sentimentality of it all is so very real and peeled at just the right speed for us to take pleasure in its unveiling of the Pfefferman family history and the moments that made each of these people who they are at present. Conglomerations of sex and gender exploration, trying to find one’s self while being scolded or shamed or preyed upon, the Pfefferman family and the people that populate their world are products of their time and circumstances. They’re lucky enough to be in positions now to have the luxury of deciding how these things will continue to affect their future, and we have the luxury of watching them continue to figure it out.

Trish Bendix is a writer in Los Angeles. Follow her work at trishbendix.com.

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