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Emmy FYC: Judith Light, "Transparent"

by Chris Feil

Most of the awards talk over Transparent’s three seasons has orbited around Jeffrey Tambor’s genius work at its center. This past season was its best acted among the entire ensemble, with emotionally raw complexity from Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker that also deserves Emmy’s attention. But the most rewarding powerhouse performance this time was Judith Light as fraught matriarch Shelly. Many months ago, she became my favorite performance of the TV year and remained so ever since.

The third season brought Shelly closer to the forefront, detailing further the abuse she suffered as a child and her quickly developing romance with the increasingly suspect Buzzy (Richard Masur). When Buzzy’s manipulations come to light and her family continually shrugs off her abrasive attempts at connection, we see not only her mounting disappointments but a growing ability to stand on her own two feet. It’s how Light makes her knees wobble as she does so that makes the season arc so moving. She's a brand!

The actress’s greatest tour de force yet on Transparent came in the season finale “Exciting and New”. The Pfeffermans set out on a family cruise after Shelly and Buzzy split, each of them indifferent to Shelly’s naked need for their attention. She finds encouragement in her personal concierge Trevor, and the opportunity to present her one-woman show To Shell And Back for a large audience. Give Light an Emmy alone for her pitch perfect matter-of-fact delivery of “Trevor is the gay that comes with my room.”

The season-capping performance of To Shell And Back is a revelation, one of the series highs thanks to Light’s breathtaking vulnerability. The tricky balance she has to constantly strike with Shelly is that she is both incredibly self-aware and yet oblivious to her own inner workings. Shelly’s play should be misguided for its bizarre use of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In My Pocket”, but the lyrics fit Shelly’s displacement perfectly as Light builds Shelly’s resolve and hope before our very eyes.

It is thanks to Light’s always stellar work on the series that it feels so rewarding to watch Shelly finally find the words to express her longing and bare her lingering fears. Light slowly thaws Shelly’s musical performance from trepidation to anxious relief to surprise at her own ultimate optimism. It’s the kind of moment that feels seasons in the making, a long game in character payoff that provides the catharsis that she’s has been denied. Like Transparent at its best, it’s wholly unexpected and deeply moving.

While her performance in this episode is sensational enough to be worthy of Emmy, Light delivers unexpected layers throughout the entire season. This third season was Shelly’s most significant journey yet but she leaves us with the knowledge that she is ready to make some big changes, so its fitting that the song she sings is about a journey still in progress. Wherever the song’s final taxi cab takes her, I cannot wait to see what Light does when she gets there.


Previous FYC 
Master of None for Best Comedy
Various Comedy Moms in Best Actress
The Americans for Best Drama
Aubrey Plaza in Legion
Justin Theroux in The Leftovers 

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Reader Comments (9)

Don't get me worng, i loved Light's work on season 3, episode 10 is her best so far, but if i had to choose one female member from the cast to get recognition that's Kathryn Hahn: she's delivered some of the most powerful and poignant moments in the series since season 2 and her work this season was not different.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commentereduardo

Judith Light is amazing here, she totally subverts the expectations of her character at the last moment (she had been a punchline all season). I do have to say though that my favorite form the cast is Amy Landecker. It's hilarious to see crazy control freak Sarah lying to herself and being awful to everyone around her as a result.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

Yes, yes, yes.
To Shell and Back.
To SHELL and back.
TO shellandback.
To Shelllllll and Baaaaack.

She was fantastic this season! She nails the role of empty nest mom desperate to maintain a relationship with her children: dead on balls accurate.

She traveled through so much territory - not just the never ending let-downs and disappointment from her kids and family, but love and happiness for once (as a biker babe no less!) all the while ringing true as a person. And the seismic epiphany in the final episode was long coming - she doesn't NEED her family (that doesn't deserve her anyway).

She's got one hand in her pocket and the other is giving a peace sign.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

chris, great tribute to her superb work this season. i agree that she flies to a different plane this season...truly tricky work with a difficult character, and she keeps forcing you to view her in different ways. yes to emmy for judith!

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

Abso-freaking-lutely. She was somehow highlighted since season 1 (I remember most people expected her to get the Emmy nod) and I honestly, didn't get the fuzz. Was stoked when Hoffman (my favorite) got in over her.

Same for season 2 but she killed it this season. I would be more than happy to see her win. Though of all the ones I've seen Rita Moreno remains my favorite.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve_Man

My favorite performance of the season. Her rendition of Hand in Pocket is mesmerizing, one of those scenes that justifies the whole "golden age of television" mantra we keep hearing about. Raw, funny, sad, deeply moving.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

So incredible in fact that I forgot while watching it that the start of the season really felt like it was letting her down and allowing her to become a brunt of comedy. I know Kate McKinnon is the favourite again, but man I'd love to see Light pull an upset.

I read somewhere suggest that the use of "Hand in My Pocket" is particularly smart because it is a song that her children knew and loved and she was using it as a means to not just tell her own story but connect to her children.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I will never, ever forget Judith Light's performance in the finale episode. Stunning, all time great work.

June 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

Love her work in the finale but I can never get over the feeling that I'm watching Light act rather than watching the actual character. I know there are plenty of real-life women who are like what she's trying to do here but her work always seems just barely over the line into choices, gestures and line readings that are too much.

Would love to see Hahn or Landecker recognized.

June 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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