As long as there are streaming services that allow us to devour entire seasons of television at a time, there will be bingeing.
Nevertheless, there’s some anecdotal evidence that viewers have re-embraced the idea savoring a series for as long as possible. Sure, watching your favorite shows in small bites, and over the course of days or weeks (the old-fashioned way, in other words), means a greater chance of getting spoiled. But it also enables you to put off the hollow feeling that takes hold as a season finale’s end credits are rolling, and you realize you’ll have to wait months, maybe even a year, for new episodes.
This is the quandary fans of Amazon’s Transparent could be considering right now: the entire 10-episode second season drops today. (Season two’s premiere episode has been available to Prime subscribers since the beginning of the month.) A Transparent binge only takes around five hours, meaning you can knock it out in one sitting. But should you?
In this case, the answer is a resounding yes. Here are five reasons why.
There are plenty of 30-minute comedy episodes that feel much, much longer than one half-hour of Transparent. That statement is not a compliment to those shows. Comedy is the entertainment equivalent of a small plate dining experience, serving satisfactory portions without the danger of bloat. Series creator Jill Soloway understands that, ensuring that each episode lasts just long enough to leave us wanting more.
The first season of Transparent won five Emmy Awards, including a Best Actor statue for Jeffrey Tambor, as well as two Golden Globes. Such accolades don’t really guarantee anything in terms of a show’s longevity; there are a number of series that have racked up awards statues in one season, only to flop tremendously in the next.
But Soloway’s crisp vision sustains Transparent’s creative momentum in season two, which one can fully appreciate by watching it as a single, five-hour work. And in that five hours, we flit from a desert wedding celebration, through the world of academic exploration, into the distant past and, at one point, crashing down in a breast-baring women’s festival in the woods.
It’s a lot to take in, but better to take in all at once.
The Pfeffermans are flawed and selfish, and as triumphant and tragic as any family of upper-middle class Angelenos can be. Soloway has written them in a way that grants us the space to be charmed by their world and frustrated at their decisions in equal measure.
Understandably, the first season of Transparent serviced the struggles that Tambor’s Mort faced after she came out as Maura, a transgender woman who spent more than half a century masquerading as a heterosexual man and a father. Subplots involving children Ali (Gaby Hoffman), Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Josh (Jay Duplass) were largely reactionary, as each allowed their “Moppa’s” choice to feed his or her self-absorption.
Sarah, bored with her typical marriage, upended her life to rekindle a lesbian relationship from her youth with Tammy (Melora Hardin). Untethered youngest daughter Ali strived to establish herself as a fully-realized adult, eventually reconsidering her sexual identity.
Josh, meanwhile, wrestled with his status as a music industry rep in image-obsessed Los Angeles, as Judith Light’s Shelly Pfefferman, the family’s overbearing matriarch, did her best to make sense of it all.
Taken as a whole, which happens in season two’s opening shot, as the clan squabbles its way through a group wedding photo, the Pfeffermans are an unbelievably self-absorbed bunch best taken in limited doses. Thus, season two deeply develops each member as separate components: Ali, Sarah, Josh, Maura, and Shelly are uniquely vulnerable, with individual tales that defy simplicity.
It’s tough to go into specifics about each without spoiling the season, beyond saying that Ali finds some direction as Sarah utterly loses hers, letting Landecker burst the seams of her character in fascinating fashion, while Josh still seeks to find a balance between growing his relationship with Rabbi Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and the teenage son he only recently met, Colton (Alex MacNicoll).
Shelly, virtually a satellite character in the first season, is more fleshed out in season two, as she both aids Maura in figuring out what it means to become a woman, and uses her to fend off the loneliness of having lost two husbands.
All of the actors get more of a chance to shine in season two, even as Tambor continues his stupendous portray of Maura, making her a figure of warmth, weariness, exasperation, and resolve.
Their various decisions, and the adventures that grow out of them, can be moving, hilarious, and utterly annoying in equal measure. It all contributes to the tonal fluctuation between laughter and drama, making Transparent tough to categorize as a pure comedy.
You’d be hard-pressed to name a television family that is more queer-positive the Pfeffermans. Soloway explores what that means over these new episodes — not only through Ali and Sarah’s separate stories but also, of course, with Maura’s journey. As much as Maura’s decision to come out is celebrated, there are financial, social, and even medical factors she had not considered. Neither has she let go of all her deep-rooted parental instincts which, at times, gets her in trouble.
Beyond this, season two grants an expanded view of the family’s Jewish heritage. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, becomes a significant intersection for each family member’s separate storylines. If Maura has nothing to apologize for, as her friend Davina (Alexandra Billings) often insists, then what recourse is there for her son, daughters and ex-wife, people who lost a father and a former spouse?
Soloway also integrates a subplot that’s part revelation and part artistic device, involving flashbacks to 1933 Berlin and the emotionally shattering life of an ancestor played by Hari Nef. The role of these trips back in time grows clearer as the season moves along, and they have far more emotional impact within a single uninterrupted viewing of the season.
In addition to the return of Hahn, Rob Huebel as Sarah’s jilted husband, as well as Billings and Trace Lysette who, in addition to Nef, are among many transgender actresses and actors featured in Transparent, season two also brings back Carrie Brownstein as a close friend of Ali’s. But there are even more impressive cast additions to this season, including Cherry Jones as a prickly, strong-willed literary figure, Michaela Watkins as another Pfefferman forbear, and Anjelica Huston, appearing here in a role that’s as confidently raw as it is tender.
These cameos don’t take us out of the story. Instead, Soloway and her directors push these guests to fully inhabit the skin of their characters – people who are just as entertaining and, at times as irritating as the Pfeffermans.
The best aspect of Transparent season two being so bingeable is that it can be appreciated in different ways, and through the prism of different characters, with repeat viewings.
It’s a continuation of Maura’s story in one take. In another, it can be an examination of how her children, and the people tangential to the family, are coping. It can hold clues about how discontentment, curiosity, and a need to question everything can be inherited traits, passed down through generations and decades. For creatives, it can serve as a study on how a story can achieve a believable balance between heavy dramatic moments and light, heartfelt absurdity.
Above all, it’s a terrific way to spend five hours.
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based TV critic and an executive member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision
Season two of Transparent is Certified Fresh at 96 percent; read reviews here.