Much has been made about what category — and therefore what genre — “Transparent” fits into; a counterproductive twist, considering the series’ purpose is about being yourself and fighting to protect what makes you you, no matter what. To decry or detract from the series because it’s not funny enough to be a comedy or not long enough to be a drama seems especially silly after watching Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) and her striver family seek acceptance for being beautifully, wonderfully weird; for standing out; for not fitting into boxes.
And yet, Season 4 has a genre problem. It’s not that Jill Soloway’s new episodes dip too far into drama. Individually, a lot of the more emotionally intense stories carry great resonance. Many haven’t been told before — like the central engine of Season 4, a family trip to Israel — or they at least haven’t been depicted in such an achingly beautiful manner (as past seasons have more consistently excelled at).
The problem is that the dramatic arcs pile up in such a way to evoke unwanted reactions; reactions similar to what people feel when a nighttime soap takes things a few steps too far. As the season builds steam, it starts to feel like emotional grenades are being dropped merely to shake things up — as though the writers don’t trust these characters to be compelling as their authentic selves — and eventually all that shaking unsettles what used to be a grounded, relatable story.
“Transparent” Season 4 is the first of the series to feel like a soap instead of its own unique, intensely human self, and it’s doubly disappointing because that genre isn’t intentional.
The first shot of the premiere is a welcome new face: Alia Shawkat plays Lila, who used to teach Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Len’s (Rob Huebel) kids and who’s also a semi-sex addict. She doesn’t consider herself a full-on addict, but she still sees a benefit in attending meetings from time to time.
But her focus isn’t really on the sex — it’s on love. Lila talks about how love, often experienced through physical expressions, can make the world feel right again. “Lately, alone, the world just feels so awful — dank,” she says. “I feel like I’m on the outside of the world. Then you meet someone and you can see everyone so much clearer. It’s everything. Suddenly you’re on the inside of the world again.”
It’s an intriguing distinction — the difference between wanting love and needing it to be OK — and one that certainly qualifies as a rarely explored addiction. Sarah, Len, and Lila dig into the dynamic throughout the season, and it’s the most nuanced arc of the lot. In a refreshing take, the throuple isn’t persecuted or challenged for wanting more than traditional coupledom. Instead, they’re forced to examine why they’re looking outside of themselves, outside of one person, outside of familial love, platonic love, and longstanding love for that burst of excitement that comes with new love and all its passions.
Similarly, Josh (Jay Duplass) comes face to face with the motivations for his sexual proclivities, but his more overt storyline involves his mother, Shelly (Judith Light). Shelly decides to move in with her son after getting fed up with her retirement community. The only issue is that Josh’s desire for a mellow, chill lifestyle runs in contrast to Shelly’s overwhelming presence.
The two clash, but the fracturing mother/son relationship leads somewhere… silly. Without spoiling anything, Shelly’s solo arc this season is by far the worst of the lot, as her journey into the world of improv (an overused developmental tool that’s out of place here) feels more like the series is mocking her than identifying with her. Josh’s journey, meanwhile, is deep, painful, and worthy of Duplass’ growing acting talents. He’s great, again, but he and Light can’t save their climactic moment from being so groan-inducing it also ruins a dramatic revelation meant to stem from the event.
“Transparent” has never been a twist-driven show. Think back to Season 1 and how much time was devoted to Maura coming out to her family, as well as the one-on-one discussions shared between characters. Or recall the flashback structure masterfully employed during Season 2, which saw a patient unveiling of Maura’s heritage. That same idea is further examined in Season 4, but the handling is less deft. Plots feel rushed, cramming in as much trauma as possible in a brief amount of time.
Whether it’s Maura’s journey to Israel or Aly’s struggle with identity (Gaby Hoffman also makes her directorial debut this season), all of these arcs come together — plus spoiler-y topics that dare not be exposed here — to feel like forced crises. Too many of the Pfefferman clan encounter extraordinary issues too quickly, even for a group of highly volatile people. One could argue “Transparent” is embracing its dramatic roots this season, but there’s so much going on it feels like the series’ unique allures are being ignored.
“Transparent” has been at its best when it confidently captures its characters’ struggles to fit into the world around them. They’re not this or that; they’re them, and viewers love each one for being boldly, proudly, and often vulnerably themselves. Season 4 feels like it’s caught in an identity crisis of its own doing; not trusting itself to be the beautiful series that doesn’t fit neatly into any one box.
“Transparent” Season 4 premieres Friday, September 22 on Amazon Prime.