Judith Light Is Incredible On Transparent, But Was She This Good Before?

Let's watch her old TV shows and find out!

You guys…when we were watching Who's The Boss?, did we really appreciate Judith Light? I certainly didn't. First of all, I never loved that show. I watched it, of course, because you gotta watch something, but it was never a Family Ties or a Cosby Show for me. And Light's character, Angela Bower, was the stick-in-the-mud foil for Tony Danza's hip and happening housekeeper. As a kid, I was obviously going to choose Tony in all things. (Well…Tony and Mona, because even then I appreciated camp.)

Point being: I grew up with reasons to Light off. Several years later, when it was announced she'd be doing a national tour of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, I remember thinking, "My god! Is that the best they could do? Was Stefanie Powers unavailable?"

But reader, I was a fool. A FOOL. Because Judith Light is the shit. The bomb. The various other single-syllable descriptors that indicate someone kicks ass.

I started to realize this in 2006, when she was so funny as Claire Meade on Ugly Betty. Remember that subplot where she and a fellow inmate busted out of jail and went on the lam? She really made that tomfoolery work.

Then in 2010, Light began her incredible run on Broadway. For three consecutive seasons, she got nominated for a Tony, and she won twice in a row. Those wins were completely deserved, too. Her performance in Other Desert Cities was especially good, underlining how much an actor can accomplish just by sitting still and listening to the people around her.

However, even those performances left me unprepared for what's happening in Season 3 of Transparent. Have you seen it yet? Have you seen the last scene of the last episode, where my girl Judith sings a torch-song version of Alanis Morissette's "Hand In My Pocket"? Because hot holy damn…it's incredible.

For the entire season, Light's character Shelly Pfefferman has been learning to celebrate herself. Tired of being battered by her family's bottomless narcissism, she writes a one-woman show called To Shell And Back. It's her platform for speaking her mind and saying that, damn it, she has also gone through a transition. And yes…To Shell And Back is a ridiculous title. And Shelly's obsession with social media and her personal brand would, if she were my mother, make me lose my mind. But guess what? Shelly's not here for me. Or you. Or Buzzy, who seems like a great, supportive boyfriend until she realizes he's a lying moocher. Shelly's here for Shelly, and for the first time in her life, she is not worried if anyone else is okay with that.

By the time Shelly starts the Alanis number, she is more confident than she's ever been. And here's where Light proves she's brilliant. Because she totally captures Shelly's confidence, but she also shows us that Shelly is a hammy performer and subpar singer. In some ways, the "Hand In My Pocket" moment is a terrible spectacle that makes me want to hide my face in my sweatshirt. But there's no looking away from Shelly's confidence, from her catharsis, from her joy. Judith Light gets all that in there, and it may be the best TV scene of the year. She'd better win an Emmy.

And now I'm wondering… was this talent there all along? Let's look back at some of Light's previous TV work and see.

  1. One Life To Live

    Back in the '80s, I remember my mom saying she knew Judith Light from One Life To Live (or "my soap," as she called it), and she always talked about a courtroom scene where Light's character went batshit crazy. The whole scene is available online, and I've embedded the juiciest part, where homegirl screams at a lawyer that she's a common hooker.

    I'm not sure I'd call this performance subtle, but Judy L. is committed af. She's giving us full tears and screaming, and I'm pretty sure she snatches out some of her own hair. Every drag queen in the world should study this moment.

  2. Who's the Boss?

    A few years after she won a pair of Daytime Emmys for OLTL, Light became Angela. If you haven't watched Who's The Boss? in a while, let me assure you that her hair and shoulder pads are even bigger than you remember. But you know what? Her acting is better than I recalled. Look at how she handles herself around Tony Danza's shameless mugging in this scene. It's masterful.
  3. Phenom

    Oooof. I vaguely remember this one-season sitcom about girls playing tennis, and now I realize why it didn't get renewed. It's just terrible. Awkwardly paced. Terribly written. The cast has less chemistry than a public high school facing budget cuts. Even Judith is terrible, which it pains me to say. Watching this makes me appreciate her easy spark with Tony D.
  4. Law & Order: SVU
    Light's Judge Elizabeth Donnelly is Not. Having. any of the Taking! It! Personally! rule-bending of her subordinates. I mean...she is, because she has a heart, but at the same time she isn't, because she didn't get to the bench by acting a fool.

    And while can't see it in this muzzy clip, her eye makeup in this role is fee-yus.

So in conclusion… Judith Light was clearly amazing all along, and the only thing that could hold her down was shoddy material. I'm sorry I ever doubted you, m'lady! May you continue on Transparent until you're singing lesser known material from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie!

Sarah D. Bunting contributed files to this report.
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