This year’s Emmy Awards provided a potent reminder of how fickle voters can be. After collecting multiple statuettes in key categories over its first few years, Amazon Prime’s “Transparent” got shut out in 2017. What once seemed as buzzy as a TV show can get has cooled off, as if the snubbed third season was indication of a show past its peak.
But diehard fans of Jill Soloway’s acclaimed dramedy can take heart in its fourth season: “Transparent” is as strong as it’s ever been, judging by the 10 episodes the streaming service released Friday.
A good chunk of this year’s episodes take the Pfefferman clan to Israel, where the baggage they unload doesn’t stop at Ben Gurion Airport. Three generations of Pfefferman get to squabble when Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) discovers the father (Jerry Adler, who played Hesh Rabkin on “”The Sopranos”) he was told had died is actually alive and very well in the Middle East, where he reinvented himself as a successful air-conditioning mogul. If being transgender hadn’t complicated Maura’s life enough, her confrontation with the father who abandoned her gives Tambor opportunity to prove all over again he can convey emotional agony with the best of his peers.
Were two Emmys really enough for this guy?
Meanwhile, the Pfefferman kids are as troubled as ever. Josh (Jay Duplass) is so haunted by the suicide of the babysitter who was his teenage love that he hallucinates her. It’s grim territory, but the beauty of “Transparent” is how it offsets the weight of its darker elements with such delightful humor that it never feels too much (and 22-minute running times also helps). The reunion of Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Len (Rob Huebel) plays much more for laughs as they revitalize their comatose marriage by taking on a third lover (“Search Party’s” Alia Shawkat). Complications ensue.
Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) has her own life messes to clean up, but her story this season — a West Bank romance, no less — takes an unexpected turn when Soloway uses her presence in Israel to ask some pretty pointed questions about the country’s treatment of its Palestinian neighbors. After seeing “Homeland” cover similar story this past season via Saul Berenson’s encounter with his settlement-dwelling sister, it’s interesting to see anti-Israel criticism pop up on American screens.
“Transparent” is certainly among the most Jewish-minded TV shows, and this season is a new watermark. But there is something incredibly authentic about its recreation of the emotional temperature of upper-middle-class American Jewry, its uneasy intimacies channeled with eerie authenticity.
If nothing else, “Transparent” succeeds this season as a travelogue that makes the country so entrancing that the Israeli Ministry of Tourism should give Soloway a medal. Not since Hannah Horvath packed up her pals for an adventure in Japan has a series made such good use of a vacation storyline.
If anything has changed about “Transparent” over the years, it’s a trend that seemed to pick up steam last season and continues into its fourth year: A show that once seemed to be Tambor in the lead role sucking up more oxygen than his supporting cast has gradually transformed into a more evenly distributed ensemble. That’s a natural outgrowth of how focused the first few seasons was on Tambor’s transformation from Mort to Maura Pfefferman.
Now that his character is more comfortable in Maura’s skin, he seems to have ceded scene time to the rest of cast, which works all too well. The best thing that can be said about “Transparent” is there isn’t a weak link anywhere to be found among its players. Even Judith Light remains remarkable even though she is saddled again with a weaker storyline involving improv comedy; it’s a credit to the actress that she elevates a role that could lapse into stereotype all too easily.
In the peak TV era, it’s easy to get enraptured by all the shiny new things that never seem too stop moving off the assembly line and neglect still vital shows just because the novelty wears off after a few seasons. “Transparent” demonstrates that being four years old doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot of life left.