Even on most cable television, sex scenes often seem more aware of the public than they are freeing or explorative. Their stagey-ness and use as dramatic punctuation — the sheer fact that they’re called “sex scenes” as opposed to just “scenes” — heightens awareness of a fiction that’s averse to or limitedly open to it, that only inputs sex for prurience or for plot development.
Even for many of the pioneers of televisual “sex positivity” — notably, Sex and the City — every sex scene seemed to have a formal point. The sex where the dick was comically big. The sex where the dick was comically small. The sex that was lesbian. The sex that was sadomasochistic. Or on Girls: The sex that was demoralizing/weird/spiteful. Etc. Sexualities on TV hang on binaries and definitions, and if they don’t, a big deal is made of that within the world of the show.
In Jill Soloway’s Transparent, however, when the characters are in or around bed, ineffably exploring the far reaches of their sexual/gender identities, they’re somewhat at peace, or at least experiencing self discovery as opposed to self destruction. It’s when they’re subjected to the rest of the world, predicated on adjectives and rules, that they seem to have a… strange time functioning. Especially when they’re in formal/large social functions — where such rules tacitly reign — these characters are utter messes.
The second season picks up where the first left off in charting the Pfeffermans’ sexual/gender-oriented curiosity and bravery, juxtaposed with their severe social anxiety. This season’s first scene begins as charming in its single-take discomfort, then becomes almost excruciating.
The Pfeffermans and affiliated parties, dressed all in white to subvert bridal norms and ostensibly have a merry old same-sex marriage in Palm Springs, are trying to pose for a family photo. However, somewhat endearingly, they cannot stop either chatting, kvetching, or yelling at each other. Their photographer also happens to be insensitive — when it’s suggested that they say something “Jewish” to get them to smile for the photo, he awkwardly shouts, “Say ‘I want a little wiiine.'” Then he proceeds to refuse to call Maura — the trans “Moppa” (Momma/Papa) character played by Jeffrey Tambor — “sir.” “We’re done,” declares Maura, long after the din-filled single-take started to become oddly uneasy.
If you’ll recall, the first season finale ended with explosive, vicious arguments at a shiva for Maura’s ex-wife’s just-deceased husband. Another failed social ritual underscored the tension in the whole first season: Ali’s bat mitzvah that never happened, because Maura (then Mort) was attempting to understand her gender dysphoria, and snuck off to a cross-dressing camp. The slight dysfunction in the Season 2’s opening wedding photo scene sets us up for another catastrophic party scene brought about by a prizing of (perhaps at times compulsive) self-discovery over societal expectation — the wedding reception. The catastrophe: Sarah Pfefferman, played with the perfect mixture of warmth and elusiveness by Amy Landecker, decides, after having wed the woman for whom she left her husband, that she wants to call it off… in the middle of the Hora… which her now-spouse is doing alone… because Sarah’s on the toilet deciding to break up with her. The next time the Pfeffermans naively dare to have a party, it’s devastated by the jilted lover’s inebriated appearance and subsequent breakdown.
So the Pfeffermans cannot, it seems, keep it together for long enough to have a social gathering that doesn’t deteriorate into drama. Rituals and ceremonies — markers of beginnings and ends — do not work for them at this transformative stage in their lives, in this season. Due to where they currently are in life, they’re either caught up in the aftermath of some sociosexual shift (Sarah), or they’re catalyzing a shift (Ali and Josh, the younger siblings played by Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass, respectively), or they’re newly coming to terms with the selves they’ve always been (Maura). This season follows each character as they move continuously deeper into these changes — and as they inconsiderately, if very understandably, use other people, and other people’s bodies, to do so.
Even Maura, who last season was just becoming comfortable admitting her gender preferences (and due to this trepidation, desexualized herself), is now attempting to understand her changing self sexually. She’s still cautious, but her path to discovery this season is more sexual than gendered. She’s torn between the option of being a woman and continuing to have sex like she used to, or being a woman and changing her sexual vocabulary. The season’s second episode speaks to this. “Flicky Flicky Thump Thump,” the episode’s title, is the somewhat disturbing name Mort called a sex move he’d perform on his wife, Shelley. Now, Shelley asks the same ritual of Maura she used to ask of her when she identified as Mort; it’s clear in Maura’s facial expression that Shelley’s needs represent her past, and are detrimental to her growth. And so Maura begins, in one of the sadder subplots, to discard her. Meanwhile, for the first time, Maura’s contemplating the option of sex reassignment surgery. She hits on a woman at a bar. She’s more comfortable talking about sex — in that she even brings it up at all — with her trans friends, Shea (Trace Lysette) and Davina (Alexandra Billings).
Josh, meanwhile, is suddenly trying start a normative nuclear family with his Rabbi girlfriend, who has a baby on the way, and the son who was the result of his having been molested as a teenager by his decades-older babysitter. (Another catastrophic social gathering: one in which that son’s conservative adoptive parents come to town in their trailer.) And Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali — who is the least interesting of the Pfefferman siblings, despite her seeming notions that she’s the most — is finally attempting a relationship with her long time best friend, played by Carrie Brownstein. (She’s also, incidentally, having visions — that seem to date back to her childhood — of Maura’s trans aunt in Germany, played by Hari Nef.) She has a new asymmetrical haircut and is making newfangled attempts at queerdom, deriving joy in lazing around the house in a strap-on.
This season, the show refines its depiction of nonchalant explorations (if the social consequences aren’t always so nonchalant) of sex and gender in relationship to self: whether it’s wandering around in an appended phallus or being old but still damn good at finger-banging your ex-wife (but also maybe kind of over finger-banging your ex wife). The show is perhaps the first testament to the beauty of Los Angeles smog, with each director (including Fish Tank‘s Andrea Arnold and Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller) filtering the whole thing in a soft postcoital haze — tinting everything in the show’s gaze with a sense of a near-divine comfort in uncertainty and curiosity. The feeling of having done something satisfying and intimate, then feeling isolated and perplexed, then seeking new forms of intimacy, pervades in the show’s beautifully ambling, sleepy aesthetic.
Beyond constant awe at its uncannily superb direction, performances, and writing, Season 2 of Transparent hits us with the notion that, for our whole lives, television has presented sexuality as stiff, staged, invulnerable and completely finite as far as labels go. Transparent‘s comfort with bodies and sex is beautiful but saddening, because it makes you suddenly hyperaware of the weight of a historical void therein. Watching and loving Transparent means acknowledging the corseted quality of so much that we’ve watched and loved before it — of the fact that we’ve never truly or fully seen into TV characters’ private worlds.
The second season is a glorious improvement from the first. Which is a funny statement. Because the first season left me — and most audiences — thinking it was so good there was no room for improvement. But if there’s something to learn from Transparent, it’s the fact that even things that seem perfect may still seek to change or deepen their senses of self.