In Its Fourth Season, 'Transparent' Tackles Politics without Getting Political
Transparent is one of my favorite shows, but one I don’t write about often because Transparent is a lot like my wife — it’s much smarter than I am, and I don’t pretend to completely understand it. I find Transparent to be an incredibly moving series about very selfish people dealing with challenging issues of identity. In a way, the selfishness of the characters actually contributes to the success of the series: The characters are intensely introspective, and they speak aloud about their issues, so we get glimpses inside the brains of various Pfeffermans going through their own crises. The level of narcissism can be off-putting — sometimes, it feels like a family of Lena Dunhams — but it’s honest, and it is instructive, and over the course of four seasons, I have gotten to know and love the Pfeffermans like family.
The show, too, has always been as much about Jewish identity as it has sexual and gender identity, but last season made their Jewishness the focal point. Interestingly, in its fourth season, it pulls away from that, even as they spend the bulk of this season’s episode in Israel. For many, traveling to Israel is about connecting with one’s Jewish roots, but for the Pfeffermans, it’s almost like something they take for granted. Israel, instead, is where Maura reconnects with her father (sort of), who abandoned the family when Maura was a young boy. For Josh, it’s a complicated journey, and I don’t even begin to understand it. He’s a sex addict, which dates back to the affair he had with an older woman when he was a teenager, and he’s still trying to come to grips with the fact that he was a victim. But his relationship with his mother is also mingled into all of that in sometimes uncomfortable ways (for both Josh and the audience). Nevertheless, Josh — I think — has grown more than any of the other characters on the series, who mostly don’t seem to mature as much as they simply gain more insights into themselves without ever really acting upon those insights.
Meanwhile, Len and Sarah continue to bring to the show much of its comic relief. They’ve reconnected this season, but in an attempt to ensure their marriage doesn’t grow stale again, they’ve invited a third party into the equation (Alia Shawkat). It goes about as well as one might expect of an older married couple sleeping with a younger woman, but it’s funny and sweet and somehow, Len and Sarah come out of it with an even stronger marriage (maybe some couples just need an extra person in the relationship to gain perspective?)
The focal point this season, however, is on Ali (sadly, Kathryn Hahn is missing this year), and this is where Transparent decides to get political without actually taking a position. In Israel, Ali hooks up with a woman in Ramallah and, overnight it seems, develops very strong, very aggressive positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s fascinating, because so few television even make an attempt to humanize both sides of the debate. I don’t recall seeing a lot of Palestinian settlements on television that did not involve a terrorist cell, nor have I witnessed the check-point ordeal of passing from Israel into Palestine. Not that Transparent takes a position on any of this — Ali does, of course (often in clumsy, tone-deaf ways), but the show (wisely, perhaps) remains neutral. Likewise, visits by the Pfeffermans to the Western Wall and the Dead Sea do not provoke any great religious stirrings, at least not like the Sukkot did last season.
It would be uncharacteristic for Transparent to look outwards, anyway. It’s not a show about taking a political stand; it’s not even a show about trans rights. It’s a show about a selfish, flawed, but ultimately lovely family and it’s about getting to know them, and understanding them, and then taking positions in support of these characters and people like them. It’s a remarkably humanistic series, and in its fourth season, Transparent remains as defiantly brilliant as ever.