TV Review: ‘Transparent’ Experiences Creative Rejuvenation in Israel

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The title of most overused sitcom trope belongs to the vacation episode. How many series take a “special trip” to a new location (i.e. Disneyland, Hawaii, New York) to mine easy laughs out of the fish out of water concept? However, “Transparent” undermines every expectation viewers have of a half hour family dramedy. Entering into its fourth season, the show takes the Pfefferman clan to Israel for the majority of the season. For a show so attuned to the LGBTQA+ community, one forgets how the characters’ Jewish heritage figures so prominently in the show’s DNA. Season four feels like a spiritual rebirth not just for the show, but the characters themselves.

Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) finds herself traveling to Israel to lecture that “will be streamable for her students.” Ali (Gaby Hoffman), fresh off of her rocky relationship with her professor Leslie (Cherry Jones), tags along. It isn’t long until a popular Israeli commercial unearths a family secret that brings the rest of the Pfefferman family to the promised land. This interrupts Sarah’s (Amy Landecker) new twist to her marriage with Len (Rob Huebel), which now includes Lila (Alia Shawkat), a woman Sarah met at a sex addict meeting. Meanwhile, Josh (Jay Duplass) struggles with recurring visions of Rita (Brett Paesel), his babysitter who became his first sexual partner and committed suicide last season.

Gender identity has long been the cornerstone of the show. After four years of navigating life as an out trans woman, Maura appears more comfortable and relaxed in her status. However, the institutional forces against members of the trans community still persist. One early harrowing moment finds Maura stopped by airport security due to a “groinal abnormality.” This lack of understanding of the trans community further exemplifies why this show and perspective is important. This season finds Ali warring against the world’s fixation on the gender binary. Looking at gender as more of a spectrum and less of a binary illustrates once again the show’s ability to tackle complex topics.

Davina (Alexandra Billings), Maura’s trans friend and roommate, gets the Kathryn Hahn Rabbi Raquel treatment this season. Always a standout on the show, Davina now commands an incredibly impactful episode that flashes back to her as a teenager. Not yet aware of her trans identity, David (young Davina) gets into a relationship with an older HIV positive man in the 80s. Self loathing and struggling for a place in the role, David pursues the relationship. However, its on stage in a drag show that David feels most at home, as Davina. in just one episode, Billings conjures up a full emotional and resonate arc.

It’s hard to imagine Judith Light surpassing her barn burning performance of “One Hand In My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette at the end of last season. However, the writers sent Shelly (Light) to improv class. From there, Light takes the character and soars. While in improv, Shelly finds her voice. However, that voice is the voice of a Jersey Shore type guido named Mario who enjoys eating hoagies and telling people what’s what. Yet, Shelly is more than a one note joke. Her invisibility towards her family builds to an epic reveal of a secret Shelly has been keeping close to her chest. Light continually raises the bar for all on screen with her.

The craft once again shines. Creator Jill Soloway assembles a female led directing staff that is beyond reproach. Other than Soloway, the show boasts Gaby Hoffman’s directorial debut and adds Sarah Gavron and Marielle Heller to the roster. Particularly in Israel, the show bursts with beauty. Much of the visual and narrative language of the season revolves around borders and boundaries. The gender divide at the wailing wall in particular does a fantastic job of visually encapsulating the major conflict of the show. With Maura looking back at her past self, the show also manages to make these flashbacks feel almost dreamlike.

“Transparent” built Amazon Prime’s exclusive content. Even after four years, the show remains fresh and daring. Much of the praise in the beginning revolved around Jeffrey Tambor’s tour de force performance as Maura. However, Tambor takes a bit more of a backseat this season. The rest of the family steps up to the challenge and carries their respective storylines. The writing is nimble and effective enough to juggle so much in just a short ten episode season. Not only does the end make one want more “Transparent,” it makes one want more trans stories told.

Season Four of “Transparent” is available on Amazon Prime.

GRADE: (★★★★)

Let us know what you think of the latest season of “Transparent” in the comments below.