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Season four of Transparent (which drops on Friday, September 22 on Amazon) brings the series to a new level of maturity, as characters begin to understand themselves (or, in some cases, finally accept that they need more time to actually understand who they are on their own, without the frenetic energy of the Pfefferman clan surrounding them), leading to some wonderful moments of catharsis seasons in the making. The season isn’t perfect, and it certainly delves far more into the realm of drama than comedy throughout the ten episodes, but it’s far more focused and character driven than season three.
My main complaint with last season’s uneven outing was that the individual characters arcs were scattered and their resolutions weren’t fully earned. I’m glad to report that season four doesn’t have similar issues. Yes, Sarah’s arc remains problematic in that she spends much of the season in a similar head space from last season, acting out in an almost manic state and seemingly unable to understand how her actions impact those around her. At its heart, Transparent is a series about people exploring their identities, whether those be gender, sexuality, traumatic pasts, and everything else in between. But while the rest of the show’s characters have grown from season one through the end of season four, Sarah has continued in the same world without boundaries or constraints since her decision to break out of her structured suburban soccer mom life in the first season. I’m not saying she needs to rein herself in, but rather she needs to have some direction as a character. Particularly when the series has taken such great pains to continue to develop the rest of the Pfefferman family to the spectacularly successful lengths of season four.
The heart of Transparent‘s first three seasons was, naturally, Maura. But season four slowly but surely cedes the emotional focus of the series to Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali, with the story fleshing out the youngest Pfefferman in brilliant color. I’ve always had trouble relating to Ali, and have often found her storylines to be more about flash and exploring issues of identity on the surface, while really allowing the character to continue drowning in her own self-centered nature. But season four offers the character a truly exceptional arc. I often found myself wanting to spend more time watching Ali finally begin to understand herself, to take the messy steps needed to get to the heart of who she is and what she wants out of life. And Hoffmann takes up the challenge of this new and more complex Ali with gusto. There’s a haunted look in her eyes as Ali realizes she needs to figure out who she is without her family around her. Its a performance deeply grounded in emotional layers, slowly being stripped back to reveal the beating heart of the character. It’s something wondrous to behold.
Also taking steps outside of the traditional Pfefferman self-centerness is Josh. I’ve often wondered how long the series could continue letting the main characters spiral into their own neurosis before starting to let them recognize their shortcomings and take steps to grow and change. For Josh, the death of Rita and losing Raquel forces him to take a look at who he has become and who he wants to be. That isn’t to say the Josh in season four is completely well-adjusted and ready to face the world. Far from it. But this is a Josh who recognizes he isn’t who he wants to be and knows that he can’t get to that place (and deal with his internalized trauma) on his own.
While Josh and Ali begin taking steps to better understand who they want to become, Maura has reached a wonderful plateau within her life that allows Jeffrey Tambor to delve into a new level of performance. The first three seasons of Transparent were a long coming out narrative for Maura, as she began to navigate life as a transwoman. The Maura of season four is secure in her skin, secure in her career, secure in her personal life, and a calming presence in the life of those around her. She can deal with the squabbling between her children, she can be a supportive presence for Shelly, she can be a protector and wonderful friend to Davina (Alexandra Billings, who has a wonderful arc this season), and she is able to deal with disappointments without falling apart. LGBT characters on television are all-too-often tied up in coming out arcs, and rarely get a chance to simply live. Maura has challenges and setbacks this season, but she has moved beyond simply navigating the initial coming out process. Season four lets us see who Maura is. And she’s a pretty remarkable woman.
The fourth season of Transparent is significantly more composed and character focused than the previous season, but doesn’t hit the humor of the show’s first two seasons. The darker, more dramatic storytelling works well, however, and it’s a joy to watch actors of the caliber of Tambor and Hoffmann get to sink their teeth into their respective story arcs (in fact, one of the most effective scenes of the season comes from Hoffman and Tambor, in a quiet moment between parent and child, sitting outside a bus, that resonates on a pretty deep level). Perhaps, most importantly, at the end of the season, I found myself excited to see where season five takes the Pfefferman family. Oh, and one last thing: Brush up on your Jesus Christ Superstar before watching the season. Trust me.