As Maura in season one of Transparent, Jeffrey Tambor left viewers breathless (whether from admiration or shock) with his performance in the Trans Got Talent show at the LGBT center. His earnest delivery of Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” with his then mentor, Davina (Alexandra Billings), left varying degrees of chills up his children’s spine.
And so, after such a delivery of an increasingly outdated pop song as this, one never would have thought it could be topped–least of all by his very own ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light). Yet, Shelly’s emotional triumph by the end of season three had to be compulsory. She had been through too much over not just the course of Mort’s transformation into Maura (really decades in the making), but starting from her preadolescence, as we eventually learn that she was sexually abused by her music teacher as a young girl.
Before this violation, however, Shelly was a blossoming talent, clearly passionate about singing. The unfortunate association of her fervor for this subject with being trespassed makes her shut down not only with regard to her pursuit of it, but in general as well. Contrasted against Mort’s own childhood of being repressed and misunderstood, we see Shelly’s parents fail to understand that she’s been through a trauma, instead chastising her constantly rather than trying to comprehend what’s going on beneath the surface.
It is this that builds the basis of the theme of “To Shel and Back,” which Shelly ultimately gets to perform in the lounge of the cruise ship she finds herself stuck on with her family, a unit she has only ever felt on the outside of as they occasionally look at her from the inside to raise their eyebrows mockingly. But Shelly isn’t going to stand for it anymore. As she notes in the intro to the performance, she’s always been attracted to men who have a dark secret, which stems from her first unwanted sexual experience with one.
And it is with this utterance that she bursts into a dramatic reinterpretation of Alanis Morissette’s 1997 single “Hand in My Pocket.” Slow, profound and delivered with the utmost of sincerity–so much so that it appears she might burst into tears at any moment–Shelly finally gets the attention she deserves from her family with the one talent they were never aware she had. One supposes it just goes to show that the people you think you know can always manage to surprise you. But this means Maura may never be able to one-up Shelly with any subsequent performance at Trans Got Talent.