Transparent? Try buck naked. In Jill Soloway’s world, coming out is something you spend your entire life doing, peeling off one layer after another in a continuously morphing search for the authentic self. No one is exempt and no one looks consistently good in this lighting and even the holy grail of authenticity, of being your true self, of fully inhabiting who you are, is a giant Pandora’s jar, so in case you were thinking that if you just stopped hiding, just stopped lying, just stopped pretending, that everything broken would be fixed? Think again, brethren.
On the other hand, keeping the mask on is a losing proposition, too, so you might as well give it a shot.
In Season Four, The Pfeffermans Go To Israel, which I was relieved to note Soloway recently said in a Hollywood Reporter interview was “like the Brady Bunch going to Hawaii,” because that was exactly what it reminded me of and I was afraid that might be a diagnostic criterion for something seriously weird. Travel as a trope for personal journey is a well-worn one for a reason: It tends to resonate, even though the Pfeffermans, it must be said, are really quite emphatically not the Bradys. This is a strength. People see things, including one another, differently when we’re temporarily removed from our normal routines. Many revelations are had, both within and among the characters (no cursed tiki items required). For an upper-middle-class Jewish family struggling with a host of personal identity crises, being in Israel applies another coat of nuances to the concept of “boundaries,” not to mention home, and family, and self. And these characters can be counted on to interpret this fraught landscape through their own personal lenses—Ali (Gaby Hoffman) becomes unbearably sanctimonious, Sarah (Amy Landecker) tries to clown everyone into submission, Shelly (Judith Light) veers from paralyzed to macho, Josh (Jay Duplass) attempts to disappear into his sweatshirt and Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) tries valiantly to hold everyone together even as she seems to be in the throes of an ever-deepening realization that this is a journey that will never really be what she imagined.
There are a few veers into melodrama. But the episodes reach deeper than ever into the guts of family dysfunction, inherited trauma, and the elusiveness of identity, and it is by turns sweet and searing, funny and deeply sad, if in some cases perhaps a bit too densely packed. Even at its most overstuffed or overdramatic, the show remains breathtaking in its attentiveness to the minutiae of human experience and the sometimes desperate struggle to be who you are when who you are runs counter to societal expectations. Or when who you are is not entirely clear to you.
A few highlights: Sarah and Ali and Josh go to a 12-step meeting for sex addicts, where Sarah runs into her kids’ former preschool teacher, Lila (Alia Shawkat), and Adult Hijinks ensue. Len (Rob Huebel) and Sarah’s struggle to redefine their relationship is a vibrant and poignant arc. Meanwhile, Josh is facing his own demons, while also dealing with Shelly, who has decided to move in without quite asking him. Judith Light got dealt a bit of a crap hand this season, it must be said, with one of the weaker and more obvious storylines, but she and Duplass are both really, really strong. Though not as strong as the character that Shelly’s concocted in her improv class. (Improv class, huh? I guess no one’s immune to low-hanging fruit. Have you ever noticed that “improv” is one letter away from “improve”? Me either.) Back in L.A., the only peripheral character who gets significant screen time is Maura’s friend, Davina (Alexandra Billings), and we get some serious backstory there, as well as a chance for Maura to be, for once, the person in that relationship providing answers rather than questions.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve read some enthused but really ham-handed commentary on Transparent’s politics (not going to name names or link links). I don’t live in Jill Soloway’s head (and it seems like maybe that’s for the best) but I am tempted to say that—notwithstanding the notion that all art is inherently political one way or another—politics (yes, even in the wake of the 2016 presidential, uh, election) is the least of what Transparent is about, and that, along with the Pfeffermans not being the Brady Bunch, is one of its true strengths. This show has multitudes of opportunities to clock you over the head with a writ-large political agenda. Instead, it takes the far more difficult and far more rewarding path of subtlety and 360-degree vision. Like its characters, it has a tendency to eschew binaries and embrace a fluid, changing, flawed, blinkered, and ultimately incredibly universal point of view. Coming out as a trans person in one’s sixties or seventies would put one in a pretty small and fraught little minority. Trauma and psychic pain? Pretty much 100% of human beings experience those things, one way or another. And what this show is about is the second thing. It’s not about Being Trans (though of course it also is)—it’s about a person’s quest for authenticity and agency in a world that can’t be depended on to support it. You can call making this show an act of resistance, and you might not be wrong, but you’d be missing the way bigger point. Transparent is an act of questioning, and specifically challenging the nature of the human ego. And I mean ego in the strictest and most non-judgmental sense of “self.” Self-reclamation, self-gratification, self-centeredness, self-seeking, self-redefining, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-concept, self-awareness, self-satisfaction, self-loathing, self-acceptance: all of it. And yeah, also what Rabbi Raquel screamed at Sarah that one time about spirituality: “It isn’t about finding yourself by crawling through your belly button and out your own asshole and calling it a journey!”
The Pfeffermans are, let’s face it, all about the navel-to-asshole transit. And in their finest moments they each manage to look in the mirror and see something way, way bigger than themselves. Their story is a deep dive into what it means to repeatedly question who you really are, which isn’t necessarily how everyone lives. Because it is painful, among other things. And because it can make you unbearably solipsistic, a trap Soloway avoids deftly by way of writing that doesn’t protect anything or anyone from questioning, and by creating amazingly nuanced and sympathetic characters whose self-ness is audaciously transcended by empathy and courage. If you’re already a fan of Transparent, you’re probably going to love the new season, or at least most of it. If you are new to it, it’s extremely bingeable and worth starting from the beginning. You have to have a certain tolerance for loose boundaries and epic dysfunction and—well, yeah, first world problems (as Davina’s flashback episode will remind you). But the acting and writing are so powerful you’ll probably locate that tolerance with little trouble.
When Pandora pried the lid off her jar she unleashed all the stuff, all the suffering and tribulation and confusion and plague, onto the mortal world. One thing stubbornly clung to the inside, and that was hope.
Season Four of Transparent premieres Friday, Sept. 22 on Amazon Prime.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.