Transparent Season 4 Review: A Trip Abroad Replaces Fulfilling Introspection

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The most interesting thing about Transparent‘s fourth season is the trip to Israel. What that means is that the most interesting thing about this series is no long its stellar filmmaking, innovative writing, or relatable character arcs. It’s been said before, in the era prior to the golden age of television, that when shows don’t know where to go, it’s time to take the characters on a vacation. That’s not always a bad thing. It’s fun to see established characters out of their element, or experiencing things that enrich their living or perspective. Friends pulled this off beautifully in not just one, but most of its ten seasons. Transparent season four aims to do the same, but not just with two or three episodes, but as much of a ten-episode season as it makes sense to.

But what’s lost is the show’s alluring manner in which it lets its story unfold. There’s no standout episode to season four, and when it’s done, the characters, save for maybe one, don’t seem to have changed that much. And yet, there’s so much drama this season, bordering even on melodrama. Transparent itself seems to be transitioning from a series that reflected the best, most intimate art house cinema to one that wants to prove it’s sticking around for the long haul. It didn’t have to, and it may have been that much more beautiful for it.

The character arcs of season four are all introduced in the first couple of episodes, with all the characters still in LA. After her crowd-pleasing success on the boat, Shelly is focused on making herself an entertainer, attending improv classes, and all around driving new roommate Josh up the wall. He, meanwhile, ever the separated one from the Pfeffermans, is on a vague crisis to find his own happiness. Then there’s Sarah and Len, who slyly enter a polyamorous relationship with newcomer Lila (Search Party‘s Alia Shawkat) without really even talking about it.

Ally, like her brother, just finds herself vaguely lost in life, especially after her breakup last season. This brings her to Maura’s lap, begging to join her on a trip to Israel. In their first few days there, the Pfefferman name is continually brought up in reference to a jingle. Upon further investigation, Maura finds her father (Jerry Adler) in as soapy a twist as Transparent will allow. It’s also an event that works to bring the whole cast to Israel for the far better second half of the season.

Transparent is one of those shows where the characters just work better together than apart, whether on vacation or not. So while in Israel, the show is able to achieve once more the baseline level of entertainment it’s always succeeded at. It’s fun to spend time with these characters, and that’s an attribute that can rescue a season as creatively uninspired as this one. There are moments they share together on this trip as strong and as impactful as anything in the first three seasons, they’re just occurring with less frequency.

This notable dip in quality of course also comes with the news that this is Jill Soloway’s last season as showrunner, through she’ll still play a significant role in creating season five, she says. The writing is on the wall from episode one that she doesn’t have much more to say about these characters. Instead, she merely shows them living and struggling in what is sure to be a trip they’ll never forget. It’s not a bad sendoff for the show’s creator, but it could have been better. There’s no final statement beyond a gentle “they’re all going to be okay, even if they’re not.” And that’s life, but Transparent‘s metaphor for it used to be so much more interesting. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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