Emmy spotlight: Judith Light triumphs as Shelly Pfefferman in ‘Transparent’ Season 3

By Tony Ruiz

judith light transparent

The third season of Amazon’s groundbreaking series “Transparent” was released back in September of 2016. And while Jill Soloway’s dramedy continued to showcase one of television’s finest ensembles — led by two-time Emmy-winner Jeffrey Tambor — this season belonged to Judith Light, whose performance as Shelly Pfefferman deserves serious awards consideration and could bring the actress her first Primetime Emmy.

The stage and screen veteran has already amassed an impressive list of awards and nominations. She earned two Daytime Emmys for Best Actress for her role as housewife-turned-prostitute Karen Wolek on ABC’s “One Life to Live.” An accomplished stage actress, Light’s work has earned her three consecutive Tony nominations for Featured Play Actress, winning in 2012 for “Other Desert Cities” and in 2013 for “The Assembled Parties.” She has yet to win at the Primetime Emmys despite nominations for Comedy Guest Actress for “Ugly Betty” (2007) and Comedy Supporting Actress for “Transparent” (2016)

In “Transparent,” Light plays Shelly Pfefferman, whose ex-husband Mort (Tambor) now lives openly as a woman named Maura. Though Shelly struggled with Maura’s revelation in the first two seasons, the third season finds Shelly finally feeling a sense happiness on multiple fronts. She is in a serious romantic relationship with Buzz (Richard Masur), a member of her synagogue, and after giving a talk about her experiences with Maura, she decides to turn it into a one-woman show called “To Shell and Back.” Shelly makes Buzz her producer, but she is soon suspicious of the lavish items that Buzz puts on her credit card. Eventually she discovers that Buzz is only helping himself, not Shelly, and the relationship ends.

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Light’s finest moments come in the season finale, “Exciting and New.” Shelly’s brings Maura and their kids (Gaby HoffmannAmy Landecker and Jay Duplass) on a cruise that she had planned to take with Buzz. Shelly is happy, particularly since she is staying in a massive suite with her own personal valet, Trevor (Tom Lenk). But her happiness is tempered as Shelly realizes that her family members are less enthusiastic about having to spend time with her. These scenes provide Light the opportunity to show great range. Her labeling Trevor as the “gay that comes with the room” is hilariously deadpan, while Shelly’s scenes venting about feeling like an outsider in her own family teem with empathy and impact, key ingredients to a winning Emmy submission.

This all leads to the final scene of the episode, and this is where Light really knocks it out of the park. Shelly performs her one-woman show in the ship’s concert venue, beginning with a devastating and honest confession that she has always been drawn to men with secrets. She then breaks into rendition of Alanis Morrisette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” and turns what was a memorable 1990s pop hit into something completely original and moving. The entire scene, and the song in particular, could have been played for laughs, but in Light’s hands, it instead plays like a moment of empowerment and revelation, balancing regret, pain, and shame with a sense of hope and reconciliation. It’s a triumph on every level.

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Writing about this episode, Kathryn VanArendonk (Vulture) said, “Light delivers an outstanding performance, shading in all of the classic Shelly tones while defining a character who is ridiculous and courageous in equal measures.” Willa Paskin (Slate) commented that Light’s performance in the final scene “feels like watching magic: There’s no way this moment gets from script to screen without a little transcendence.”

Hank Stuever (The Washington Post) continued with the raves, saying that Light’s performance is “as key to the show’s success as Tambor’s, extending some tropes about Jewish mothers into a deeply psychological portrait of self-centeredness — the insistent ego, which has become a Pfefferman family specialty.” Do you agree that Judith Light is Emmy-bound for “Transparent” Season 3?

Emmy spotlight: Judith Light triumphs as Shelly Pfefferman in ‘Transparent’ Season 3