Until the debut of its latest 10 episodes for season four, Transparent has maintained multiple character arcs and storylines without sticking its characters in pointless open-ended scenarios, a crime so many other shows commit in an attempt to lock in another season. Its creators have been adept at striking the queer (no pun intended) balance between comedy and tragedy, between sitcom and cinema. The series’ soundtrack is tasteful, varied and captures the tortured, big heart of the show, and one of its strongest elements incorporates a deep, reverent look at queer German subculture in the Weimar days of the 1920’s. This connection to a real history and exploration of inherited trauma informs not only the characters’ actions, but takes the series to a new level of TV-literary masterclass.
From season to season, some stories may have worn at viewers – e.g., the endless march of people weaving in and out of Len and Sarah’s lives; the exhausting selfishness that most of the Pfefferman kids display – but at its core, Transparent has always held me since its perfect pilot episode. It’s as much about family as it is the multidimensional spectrum of gender and attraction; it makes as many focused, needed statements about culture and society as it does about the essential human experience.
Season 4 is the first season that dragged, and while our many players landed in a satisfying, if still unsteady, place by the finale, restlessness set in midway, and I found myself getting up to do little mundane things mid-episode as opposed to losing track of time while watching.
Let’s look first at the many merits of this season: first, Josh’s progress – at the outset, he is “radiating pain” according to his former/reformed dealer (Jason Montzoukas); dressed in schlubby depression clothes, and attending counseling with the ghost of Rita (Brett Paesel) as an unwelcome guest. Finally, he is forced to confront the trauma as a victim of abuse; the writers’ lack of willingness to “go there” was a point of criticism levied by critics. This intimate glimpse into the near-schizophrenic brain of a recovering victim, constantly hearing the voice and feeling the presence of their abuser, is achingly portrayed by Josh (Jay Duplass). Ghost Rita’s comments to him are a projection of Josh’s guilt–“I just want to make sure you don’t change anything,” she tells him with cruel aplomb while he’s sitting in group–and this serves as one of the most chilling yet heartrending moments of the new season.
Other stories take on some of the most provocative risks yet; an example is Ali and Maura’s journey to Israel, which extends into a long affair drawing in nearly everyone in the family. For all parties, it’s an inevitable impetus for a rebirth of sorts, complete with a family baptism (wrong religion, but you get the idea) bath in the Dead Sea. Maura’s discovery of her long-lost father in Israel after one brief interaction with a man at a Tel Aviv bar does feel a bit cloying–such convenient coincidences do occur in real life, but it’s a little too neat. Ali’s interactions with the pro-Palestine SJW “Lyfe,” who has a significant Instagram following, is a very 2017 element, and yet the subplot at its core is about the perspective shift that so many sagas of transformation include. Simply, Ali has seen the other side–and it has sparked a new sense of purpose for her.
Still, there’s an uneven balance. Shelly’s development as a new improv student this season comes off as cloying. Although the writers’ clear intent is to tie a loop left open after her molestation as a child by a piano teacher, which scarred her as a future performer, it’s a bit of a lazy trope to throw in such a complex web of narratives that is known for taking unique risks. It feels more like filler, give-her-something-to-do than a thoughtful shift for her character. And while there’s an underlying curiosity for viewers watching Ali react to her awakening to Palestinian issues, the way we got there feels a bit forced. Maura is stopped for a “groin anomaly” by TSA as she’s about to board the plane for the Promised Land, and there’s a snappy back-and-forth between two culturally insensitive agents about who should pat her down. Who has their phone up and taping the whole humiliating ordeal? Ali, of course, insisting that it’s legal, and then of course it goes viral. Social media has increasingly made its way into media and pop culture–and inevitably, given how they’re all so intertwined–but again, it plays a little bit too much into exhausted expectations.
As our characters meander through Israel, another epiphany drops on them, thanks to Moshe (“a cool guy!”)’s revelation. It’s one that we’ve known about for a while: the poetic connection Maura has to her great-aunt Gittel, who was also trans and died in the Holocaust. And Maura’s at first furtive, then more comfortable state of being around her new male partner, Donald, is a refreshing step for the show, a total revolution for Maura, who in younger days, was not attracted to men. Again, Transparent is willing to speak up on behalf of all those whose desires and preferences don’t fit neatly into boxes.
Despite its flaws, we still saw knockout performances by our main players, re-engaged with a mix of characters we can find both sympathetic and annoying (as usual), and viewers will be able to peel off layers and dig into the corners of each moment, finding endless alternate meanings, for the next year until our next season premieres.
Transparent is now streaming on Amazon Prime
Emily Nuncio Shick | Contributor