This Transparent Season 4 review contains some spoilers.
As always, secrets are both the Pfefferman family code and their currency: they can’t help but create their own and tell everyone else’s, absolutely all the time.
The premise of Transparent was built on Maura’s secret, but the family never quite seems to run out of them. This season is predicated on a particular set of secrets, which send the Pfeffermans off on their paths — whether they be toward Israel, toward the truth about themselves, or toward some sort of acceptance or inner peace.
Music has always played a strong role in Transparent, but this season’s soundtrack is a preexisting one: Jesus Christ Superstar. For the uninitiated, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock and roll musical was supposedly a hip retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth when it came out.
The goofy charm works well here, and on-the-nose group sing-a-longs are exactly the kind of stuff of which extended family vacations are made. Continuing a fine Transparent tradition, many of the songs are sung by characters in scene and later played as part of the soundtrack or over the credits, making everything feel more intimate and compelling as needed.
Much of this season is spent in Israel, with first Maura and Ali and later the entire family except for cousin Simon, who’s too busy going to Comic Con(!) to visit the Holy Land. The new setting feels almost like a reset, allowing the characters to reflect and interact in new and different ways. It also serves to put off further conversation about what Maura’s life will look like, now that she will not be having the transition she once imagined.
I’m hopeful that the conversation will be revisited, especially in light of some of Maura’s revelations from her time in Israel. The concept that “surgery equals transition” is far too prevalent, and Maura is representative of so many real-life women, including Jill Solloway’s parent, the real life inspiration for the series. Positive representation of non-surgical transition would be empowering and edifying for many, not to mention rich narrative ground.
The trade-off to setting so much of the season in Israel is that we spend very little time with our side characters back in LA. Davina steals what few scenes she’s in and blows her spotlight episode complete out of the water, but others make no appearance or appear only briefly. Even for the remaining Pfeffermans, the time when they are split up feels disjoint and a bit stale, especially in comparison to their ensemble scenes or episodes where they frequently trade scene partners, in a never-ending game of telephone with the world’s biggest gossips.
Transparent has never shied away from controversial subject matter of course, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is a tough topic, even for this show. In the past the Pfefferman’s Jewishness has largely been cultural, a frequent subject of humor for them, or a source of comfort. There have been passing comments about the politics of the state of Israel, but Season 4 confronts this complex issue head on, from a variety of perspectives, and over the course of multiple episodes.
It is shown with a reverence for how much this land means to this Jewish family, and always through the natural roles the characters would take on: Ali goes from naive to insufferably self-righteous in a matter of days; Sarah is too busy being frazzled and making faux-apologies during speeches; Shelly continues to say #PeakMom things; and Maura tries to keep the peace.
What will likely be the most compelling for many viewers is the conversation between queer Arabs about how Israeli security threatening to out them to their parents. It’s the kind of people Ali would be hanging out with back in LA, a group many might assume doesn’t exist in the West Bank, yet here they are. It’s also the strongest point because the show is sticking to what it knows: the politics of gender and identity.
The other major inciting incident is Sarah’s idea that the Pfefferman kids go to a sex addiction meeting. Each of the three siblings takes different meaning from that experience and heads off on a very different trajectory. At one point, Len posits that Sarah may never be happy, which is certainly possible, but this season Sarah opts for being (mostly) honest, and it seems like the closest she has ever come.
Along with Sarah’s honesty comes a polyamorous relationship, which is generally portrayed with the same tact and nuance as any other sexual theme on the show, although there are no explainers for pearl-clutching viewers until the arc is well under way. The warmth of loving, longstanding relationships in whatever form they take remains a highlight on Transparent, from Len and Sarah to Shelly and Maura, and that certainly comes through here, especially in the last few episodes.
One of the strongest narrative threads this season is the relationship between Josh and Shelly. They’ve both been more than a little unmoored for a while now, and they start the season off flung together with Shelly moving in with Josh, though it’s not entirely clear why.
They certainly have their separate arcs, with Shelly trying improv (“But how do you know it’s gonna be good?”) and Josh going to a sex and love addiction group. This works best when, and comes to a particularly satisfying conclusion as, Josh realizes how much he and his mother have in common and sees her bravery, and through that, sees a way forward for himself.
Ali’s continual journey of self discovery is much more satisfying this season than it has been in the past. Watching Ali flail, rudderless, regarding their career isn’t particularly captivating. The next steps on their journey through self-discovery of gender and identity, however, are much moreso.
It’s also a great recognition of how different these same conversations are for people of different generations, for a whole host of reasons. Women Maura’s age are using different terminology because they have different histories, and with that comes different ways for expressing themselves, whether though their clothing, their pronouns, or their behavior. In the same way that the flashbacks and visions take us back in time, Ali and her friends take us forward in time to see how a younger generation views the same issues.
Maura feels incredibly grounded and comfortable in her own skin at both the start and end of the season, with a lot of revelations packed in the middle. This season felt more contemplative than jaw-dropping or soapy (that is to say, it didn’t chew through quite as many plot points as usual), but it was no less enjoyable for it.
Transparent gave us a different kind of season, one that is tight and coherent yet still gentle and open-ended, but that can only be made later in a show’s life, building upon all the groundwork laid before it.
Transparent Season 4 premieres on Friday, September 22nd on Amazon.