Have you heard of the Tzadikim Nistarim? It’s the Talmudic term for the “36 people whose righteousness sustains the world,” an “insurance policy” against the apocalypse, as Transparent’s Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) explains during a worship ceremony midway through the show’s third season.
“Who are these 36?” Raquel asks as congregants link arms in candlelight. “We don’t know. Even the 36 don’t know. So what is the lesson? The lesson is to treat each other as if we might be one. Or who knows, we might be standing next to one right now.”
It’s a tale out of Judaism, but the underlying message is familiar across belief systems. Christianity’s Golden Rule gets at the same idea. So does Transparent’s poignant and clever third season, which fixates on the notion of reserving compassion and dignity for all, whether when dealing with estranged relatives or dominatrixes. The tension of the ever-more-compelling Amazon dramedy lies in the fact that its central family, the Pfeffermans, seem unable to muster anything like true kindness for anyone. They wrongly believe happiness must be extracted from others rather than arise from generosity.
The first season humanized a well-off and deeply flawed Los Angeles family reacting to its longtime patriarch identifying as a transgender woman named Maura. The second season portrayed the Pfeffermans blowing up their lives and using the trappings of social progress as a pretext for selfishness. The third season is gentler yet somehow more piercing: These characters have amassed some wisdom but are still missing the most important lessons. Early on, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) marvels that she has everything she once hoped for but still burns with the question,“Why am I so unhappy?” Transparent goes on to answer this, amply.