TV Series Review: Transparent (Season 4)

Season 4 of the TV series TRANSPARENT has dropped and, like last year, I watched all ten episodes over three days. In thinking about what I wanted to write about this time around, I revisited my review from last year. Interestingly, everything I wrote about the Pfeffermans last year still holds true: They’re still American television’s most dysfunctional Jewish family, they are still a deeply unhappy bunch though they may not know it, and the children are completely selfish people and undeserving of any sympathy, although this year Josh (Jay Duplass) is at last showing the first glimmer of redemption.

If the theme of Season 3 was “faith”, Season 4’s theme might be “boundaries and borders”, and what better place for the Pfeffermans to find those than in Israel. Yes, the Pfeffermans go to the Holy Land this year but their trip is anything but a religious pilgrimage or a Birthright tour.

As the season opens, we find that Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) has returned to academia and she has been invited to speak at a conference in Tel Aviv. Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who has just dealt with her own boundary issues with Leslie, decides at the last minute to join him. Not long after the pair’s plane touches down in Israel, Maura learns that a long-lost relative is not only still alive but living a charmed life in the coastal city of Caesarea. It’s interesting to note that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s home is in the same neighbourhood but this detail was ignored by the show’s writers. In fact, a lot about Israel was ignored, with the characters preferring instead to comment numerous times about how much Israel reminded them of southern California. Now, I’ll concede that this may have been an inside joke as the whole Israel adventure was shot in southern California, but while Conan O’Brien’s recent trip to Israel showed how vibrant and diverse the country is, TRANSPARENT’s Israel has crappy Internet and telephone service, the food – with the exception of the bread, apparently – looks and tastes like soup kitchen slop, and there are no other tourists for miles around. Even the sites that they visit are stale – a Bedouin village, the Dead Sea, the Arab Market in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Via Dolorosa (which seemed to carry more interest to the Pfeffermans than the Jewish sites), and the Western Wall. Sure, these were all must-see/must-do tourist sites in 1977 but there is so much more to see and do in Israel in 2017 than just these places. Just ask Conan.

Disappointingly, the trip gets political right away with Ali running off to meet a new friend in Ramallah, and the show’s writers take great pains to tell one side of the complex relationship between Israel and the Palestinians but not the other. Even worse, the other Pfeffermans (yes, they all eventually show up there) lamely try to justify the country’s existence in relation to the Holocaust or that “Jews have been there since the 1900s”. The Pfeffermans, perhaps like most cultural Jews in America, are sorely ignorant of Jewish history and they make no attempt to educate themselves. More disappointing is that the writers overlooked two golden opportunities to touch on how Israel’s politics has relevance to the Pfeffermans. Tel Aviv is home to a vibrant gay community yet no mention is made of that. It’s surprising that Ali, of all people, doesn’t seek it out. Similarly surprising is that their visit to the Western Wall passes without incident. A few years ago, a transgendered woman was not allowed to pray in either the women’s or the men’s section. If the writers wanted to push the envelope in relation to borders and boundaries, here is where they should have focussed their efforts.

On the plus side, screen time is finally given to Maura’s trans friend, Davina (Alexandra Billings), offering viewers some of her backstory. While interesting to watch, it’s hard to see the relevance to Maura’s journey or the season’s overarching themes. I suspect the writers will be giving this character more prominence next year as she moves into Maura’s house at the end of this season. Shelly (Judith Light), meanwhile, finally lets her boundaries down and reveals a secret of her own to the family. It passes, however, with barely a blink from the others. As obnoxious and pushy (talk about boundaries!) as she is, I feel sorry for her. Her character is becoming battier and perhaps frailer, and I’m guessing that she is being set up for a big event to come. Sara (Amy Landecker) and Len (Rob Huebel), who have major boundary issues of their own, also seem to be in line for a big event next season. With so few episodes each year though, and so much of the family’s meshugas (nonsense) to plow through, the writers are going to be hard pressed to fit everything in. That was certainly the case this season.

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