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In its fourth season, ‘Transparent’ continues crossing borders

| Monday, October 9, 2017

banner-transparentWEBJOSEPH HAN | The Observer

One of the recurring motifs in the fourth season of “Transparent,” the Amazon series chronicling the trials and tribulations of the dysfunctional Pfefferman family, is the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Humor is mined from this Jewish family’s infatuation with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical/rock opera about Jesus — a highlight, for me, is when matriarch Shelly (played by the brilliant Judith Light) belts “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” while riding a camel — but the music also scores some of this season’s most poignant scenes. “Everything’s Alright,” based on the Gospel story in which Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, reprises multiple times. “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to / Problems that upset you,” Magdalene urges Jesus in the song. “Don’t you know / Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”

Those lyrics become a reassuring mantra for the members of the Pfefferman clan, each of whom is still struggling to achieve some semblance of inner peace. “Transparent” has always been about the difficult process of self-realization. This season these efforts are hindered most acutely by borders, both geopolitical and social. Borders construct identities, but they also create binaries. “Transparent” navigates the messy in-between, as the Pfeffermans continue to grapple with their identities, within the family and in the world at large.

This border crossing begins when Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) accepts a speaking invitation in Israel, and her youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) tags along for the trip. In Jerusalem, Maura discovers that her father Moshe (Jerry Adler), who she believed was dead, is not only alive, but an air-conditioning mogul famous for his cheesy infomercials. Meanwhile, Ali meets an activist named Lyfe (Folake Olowofoyeku), who takes her to a commune in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. There, Ali attempts to reconcile her Jewish heritage with the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

Back in Los Angeles, eldest sister Sarah (Amy Landecker) and her ex-husband Len (Rob Huebel) revive their relationship by experimenting with polyamory. Josh (Jay Duplass) is haunted by the ghost of Rita, the babysitter who had a sexual relationship with him when he was a teenager. After asserting herself through her one-woman show last season, Shelly continues to stake out an identity independent of her family. Shelly’s character arc is responsible for some of the season’s funniest moments, as she takes improv classes and invents an Italian alter ego named Mario.

“Transparent” remains at its best when its characters’ individual journeys come into conflict with one another and secrets come out into the open — as in this season, when the rest of the Pfeffermans join Maura and Ali in the Holy Land. In one of the season’s most heartbreaking moments, Moshe tells Maura that her aunt Gittel, who was killed in the Holocaust, was also transgender — something Maura’s late mother kept from her. “My whole life, I thought I was alone in this,” Maura laments to Ali. “Imagine if I’d known.”

The Pfeffermans’ contentious family vacation builds to a beautiful scene in which more truths float to the surface as the family swims in the Dead Sea. With the gorgeous blue water as a backdrop, their familial conflict, and eventual reconciliation, is imbued with an almost spiritual reverence. Again the family returns to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” this time singing “The Last Supper”: “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle / Knew that I would make it if I tried.” Even after four seasons, it is moments like these — gorgeous, indelible and unexpected — that continue to make “Transparent,” flaws and all, so compelling.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew is pursuing an MA in English and American Literature. Most of his waking thoughts are about Twin Peaks. He thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

Contact Matthew