New Transparent makes Girls seem like Jane Austen

by Diana Wichtel / 26 November, 2017

Unmissably off the wall: Jenny O’Hara, left, and Jeffrey Tambor as sisters Bryna and Maura.

Behold the Pfeffermans, as they pack up their troubles and head on over to Israel.

Like an emissary from an alternative but unnervingly relatable universe, season four of Transparent has landed. The Pfefferman family continues to orbit around the trans parent of the title, Maura, formerly college professor Mort. This season, Maura’s gravitational pull drags everyone – ex-wife, children, sister – to Israel. “It’s like The Brady Bunch going to Hawaii,” said the show’s creator, Jill Soloway. Only more guns.

Maura – Moppa to the kids – is to deliver a keynote lecture on gender and Judaism. Who better? “Let’s just hope that I’m better received there than the last Jew who went a-preachin’,” she muses to her adoring students.

Last season, Maura threw away her Spanx and evolved her own style. She has a nice boyfriend called Donald. He’s not interested in her lecture. “I’ve got all the gender and Judaism I need right here with you.”

First, identity-challenged youngest daughter Ali decides to flee with Moppa to Israel. Her former professor and lover is under investigation for sexually harassing her students and has published an eye-wateringly unattractive poem about Ali in the New Yorker. “You gorged then walked away farting flatware”, goes one of the more printable lines.

Moppa and Ali get stoned on the way to the airport on medical marijuana-infused gummi bears. Maura gets stopped at the not-very-woke security scanner, which has picked up a “groin anomaly”. These days Maura takes no shit. “If you want me to be a man, I’ll be a man. If you want me to be a woman, I’ll be a woman. If you want me to be a f---ing chicken, I’ll be a chicken,” she advises the agent. Ali videos the incident on her phone and it goes viral. This series makes Girls seem like Jane Austen.

“It looks like LA,” says Ali, when they arrive in Tel Aviv – a little in-joke; the Israel scenes were shot in California. Soon, a fresh family revelation has the rest of the Pfeffermans flying in, bringing their self-involvement, increasingly weird sex lives and phantoms from their troubled pasts along as excess baggage. It’s all go this season.

It’s not all laughs. Ali meets a social-justice warrior called Lyfe, who makes sure she gets some schooling in the Palestinian experience. This sort of storyline on a drama-comedy is almost guaranteed to be a bad idea. Transparent pretty much pulls it off, generating some light along with the heat.

The family goes to pray at the Western Wall, economically illuminating the season’s theme of personal and political boundaries. Maura makes a beeline for the women’s side. Ali refuses this most binary of situations and takes herself and her man bun off to join the men. For once, no drama ensues.

Will these experiences make the Pfeffermans less obnoxious? Probably not, but the show’s compassionate eye for its characters’ obstinate flaws and their largely doomed attempts to overcome them is heartening in our troll-ridden, hypercritical times.

The family goes on a road trip. What can go wrong? Josh is already struggling with having his weapons-grade Jewish mother, Shelly, move in with him. In a scene that’s hilarious, alarmingly Freudian and ultimately moving, he gets a gun lesson from the security guard and ends up with the weapon accidentally aimed at his mother.

On Transparent, family dynamics are often played for laughs, but the stakes are high. With so much going on, Maura is less central. Fortunately, the superb Jeffrey Tambor lends her a vivid emotional eloquence, even when she’s just sitting there, breathing.

So has the series held up as one of the most sublime, disruptive, audacious products of the golden age – or any age – of television? Yes. Season four is an unruly collection of dysfunction, transgressions, trauma and knock-about comedy packed into 10 22-minute episodes that defy you to stop watching. Unmissable.

Transparent, Lightbox.

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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