‘Transparent’ Goes To Israel For An Uneven Fourth Season

Amazon’s press screeners for the new season of Transparent mislabeled the fourth and fifth episodes, so that I (and some other critics) wound up watching them in reverse order. As the fifth (which I thought was the fourth) seemed to be skipping over major chunks of plot, I briefly wondered if creator Jill Soloway and company had decided to be more avant-garde than usual in their storytelling choices, or if they had simply grown more careless four years into the project.

Instead, the actual fourth episode wound up filling in all the blanks when I got to it, but the mistake left me thinking about the creative state of Transparent in this season. (It debuts on Friday; I’ve seen all 10 episodes.) What in its first two years was one of TV’s boldest, and most focused series has become shaggy around the edges in its more recent two. At its very best, it’s capable of moments of such beauty and emotional truth that very little of Peak TV can even glance at, let alone touch. But getting there requires more effort, and patience, than before.

The big development this season involves the Pfeffermans going to Israel. It starts with Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura being invited to a conference to deliver a paper on the intersection of Judaism, gender, and the Cold War, but soon Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) has reason to join her, and then Shelly (Judith Light), Josh (Jay Duplass), Sarah (Amy Landecker), Len (Rob Huebel), and Maura’s sister Bryna (Jenny O’Hara) are invited to follow.

This could play as self-parody — the most Jewish series in American TV history(*) devoting most of a season to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — but the Israel scenes are thoughtful and poetic in the way Transparent can be, and the Pfeffermans wind up, whether individually or as one noisy group, getting a look at many landmarks and cultural hot buttons, including the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea, a Palestinian hipster neighborhood in the West Bank, and a settlement. Large swaths of their sightseeing seems designed to alternately move and enrage the audience, regardless of their politics (what will move some will enrage others, and vice versa), as each member of the family finds something different about the place to latch onto.

(*) The show is super-Jewish, its delivery system not always: the season will premiere on the second day of Rosh Hashana, when many Jews will be spending the day praying.

All of that is outstanding, as is the way the trip forces a number of Pfefferman family secrets out into the light. In particular, there’s a moment where multiple truths come out at once during an uncomfortable dip in the Dead Sea that justifies the entire season’s existence on its own.

Yet at the same time, much of the season feels like the writers are running out of things to say about the Pfeffermans, at least at this 10-episode length. Most episodes clock in at a brisk 22-odd minutes, and often feel shorter (or at least thinner) than that, and several season-long arcs — particularly one about Sarah befriending Lyla (Alia Shawkat), the former preschool teacher for one of her kids — both run out of steam and push the limits of the Pfeffermans’ innate self-involvement. The show has never tried to hide its characters’ flaws, or even to apologize for them, but Transparent tends to be at its most effective, and most powerful, when it’s placing those flaws in a context of tragedy and secrets and lies that goes back generations. There’s some of that this year, particularly in the things Maura learns about her family during the trip, but less than before. Different Pfeffermans go on tough emotional journeys — Josh grapples some more with the suicide of the babysitter who used to molest him, Ali continues to explore her gender identity in a way that at times mirrors things Soloway has discussed publicly(*) — but the impact of them feels less potent than arcs they and the others have gone through in the past.

(*) It’s to the creative team’s credit that they don’t lean too hard on the parallel between some of the Pfeffermans and Israel itself as a place with a disputed identity. It’s there if you want to consider it, but never overdone.

Season three was a small step down from the first two in the way it worked much better in parts than as a whole. The Israel trip on paper should give the new season a more cohesive feeling, but instead these episodes work in fits and starts even more than their immediate predecessors.

Some stories aren’t meant to be told forever. As it is, the fifth season will have a new showrunner, even though Soloway will remain heavily involved. Transparent is still capable of telling stories and going to emotional places that no other series can, but the older it gets, the harder it becomes to avoid repeating itself, even in a season that largely takes place halfway around the world.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is out 10/10 and available for preoder now.