As Emmy nominations approach, Vanity Fair’s HWD team is diving deep into how some of this season’s greatest scenes and characters came together.
The Character: Shelly Pfefferman, Transparent
The lights dim and a projector rises as the final scene of Transparent Season 3 opens on Judith Light. In Shelly Pfefferman’s signature silver bob, she wears a long black dress and a shimmering black-and-gold jacket as she steps into the spotlight of a cruise-ship stage to perform her one-woman show, the aptly titled To Shell and Back. “When I was a young girl, something happened to me that made me stop being who I really was; I stopped growing . . . Who am I? I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. I was in a cocoon,” she says. She takes a measured breath, looks to the audience—including her family—and launches into Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “Hand in My
The song, famous for its litany of conflicting emotions, acts in this moment as Shelly’s personal theme. Three seasons into her journey as the ex-spouse of Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura—a transgender woman who came out in the series’s first season—and mother of three adult children on their own equally convoluted journeys, Shelly is finally getting a moment of her own.
“Old Shelly was codependent on Mort”—i.e., Maura, pre-transition—“and allowed him to move in secrecy behind her back. But new Shelly doesn’t hesitate to drop Buzzy the minute she gets a whiff of betrayal,” Transparent creator Jill Soloway wrote to Vanity Fair in an e-mail, referring to the lying, swindling boyfriend Shelly has just dumped in Season 3. “New Shelly uses Facebook. New Shelly is a brand!”
How She Came to Life
Soloway had a clear vision for the kind of person Shelly was when Transparent first began: a hands-on mother who just wants to be included in her family’s evolving story. (“I’m dairy-free,” her daughter Ali announces in an early Season 1 episode. “That’s good; I’m dairy-free too,” Shelly responds. “Since right now.”)
But over time, the tumultuousness surrounding Shelly has led the onetime housewife to make a few huge changes of her own. She has thrown herself into helping Maura with her transition—coaching her as she reaches important milestones, like picking out a new wardrobe. Gradually, though, Shelly moves beyond the connection she shared with her first spouse and, in Season 3, she finds a new partner in Buzzy. When the relationship falls apart, instead of glancing back at what she has lost—as she has in the past—Shelly focuses on herself, and on embracing her newfound individuality.
“Maura, at the age of 70, is making a break for freedom. And there’s Shelly, making her own break,” says Tambor, who has known Light since they worked together in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater at the beginning of their careers. “Remember that experiment in physics—you move one steel ball, and everything else moves accordingly? Everything by nature has to move, and so Shelly has made her move.”
Light, a New York theater veteran and previously best known for her roles on Law and Order: S.V.U., 1980s sitcom Who’s the Boss?, and more, says the crux of Shelly’s character is contained in a line from a speech her character gives at her local synagogue in Season 3: “When one person transitions,” Shelly explains, “everyone transitions.”
As Shelly continues to grapple with her own family’s evolving life in Season 3, she evolves, too. Still yearning to bond on a deeper level with her children and Maura, she takes them on an all-expenses-paid cruise her ex Buzzy had bought (with Shelly’s credit card). The cruise, it turns out, becomes a time for Shelly to connect with herself, via her show-stopping solo.
When Soloway and their sister, Transparent writer Faith Soloway, first approached Light about performing Alanis Morissette in the Season 3 finale, the actress balked at the idea. “Of course I knew Jagged Little Pill; I loved Alanis Morissette,” she says. “But it was like, ‘Wait a minute. Why isn’t Shelly doing the song ‘Dancing in the Dark’?’ Or, you know, a Frank Sinatra tune or an Elvis tune. What are you thinking?”
To Soloway, though, there really was no better song.
“We felt that ‘Hand in My Pocket’ resonated so powerfully with Shelly’s journey to finding her voice,” they wrote. “There’s something special in the line ‘everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine’ that we believed Shelly’s character would connect to during her own ‘coming out’ journey. It was the perfect swan song for this pivotal moment where, for the first time, Shelly is the one standing in front of her family saying, ‘HERE I AM.‘“
Light soon came to agree with Soloway; this raw song was the perfect way for Shelly to tell her story, and for her journey to come full circle. In an early episode of Season 1, Shelly had flippantly told Ali that she doesn’t care for music. At the time, it sounded like an offhand remark; in Season 3, though, we learn that as a girl, Shelly was sexually assaulted by her music teacher. This backstory gives her big solo, which comes only after 10 episodes of self-discovery, an extra poignancy: “You have the end of Season 3, and you have Shelly singing on this cruise,” says Light. “I think that’s just sheer brilliance.“
Much as the people surrounding her have spurred Shelly to find herself, Light is learning from her character—and opening herself up to new possibilities, thanks to the inspiration of Transparent. Just last year, Light herself appeared in a one-woman show, All the Ways to Say I Love You, in New York City. The prospect of doing this production terrified her, she says. But like Shelly’s breakout moment, it was something she knew she had to do.
“I’ve always hesitated in life to, you know, talk about things that frightened me or worried me and to be brave about saying those things,” says Light. “And that’s a lot about what Shelly is teaching me, what she’s enabled me to learn. I could not ask for a funnier or sweeter, more tender, fragile, delicate guide than her.”