Before getting into the review proper, it’s fair to disregard this episode’s grade, critiques, and misgivings entirely for a single reason: Moshe Pfefferman’s titular “Cool Guy” commercial in all its full George H.W. Bush-era (Yitzhak Shamir-era?), spray-and-teased hair glory. It’s an easy joke to recreate the low-budget charms of any era of local television ads, but no less satisfying for it.
That said, I had to watch “Cool Guy” a second time just to shake my reflexive annoyance with the show. Transparent increasingly feels like little more than a group of characters reduced to a set of intractable hang-ups that they can’t (or won’t) solve. Instead of developing arcs, Transparent seems content to take the same interpersonal problems and simply plop them into new environments. While similar to our behavior as people (after all, how many of us have successfully shed the neuroses we’ve lovingly cultivated since childhood?), fidelity to real life isn’t the reason a most us are watching television. The performances in “Cool Guy” are delicate and thoughtful, and the small moments and reactions that exist between the characters are as strong as ever. But even so, I can’t shake the comparison of season 4 to a Spirograph drawing. It’s intricately constructed, but still just a bunch of circles. For a show explicitly about change, an awful lot of it is spent with characters reinforcing their old behaviors.
This is most apparent than with Sarah’s story. She and Len stop by Lila’s really cool apartment to discuss a possible book future for Sarah’s most recent blogging venture. But as is often the case with conversations that begin around dom/sub-flavored parenting techniques, the three end up doing vodka bong rips and having a threesome. Maybe my irritability was inflamed by Lila’s distracting two-tone satin western shirt, but Sarah’s ongoing escape into the dull infinity of sexual exploration as a replacement for purpose was no more interesting for the inclusion of Temple Grandin cosplay-infused polyamory.
Josh continues as well to deal with the seemingly intractable question of his masculinity and sexuality. Maura and Ali’s trip to Israel is coloring his storyline this season and making a connection to the source of Judaism tints everything in an Old Testament, Bronze Age patina. Throughout the series, Josh has always cultivated a deliberately unkempt aesthetic. This season he’s tilted from tousled straight to haggard. As he continues to invest more time and serious reflection into his sex addicts group, he increasingly resembles a wild-eyed prophet wandering the wilderness of Judea seeking enlightenment or purpose or forgiveness from God. He remains haunted by Rita and still struggles to deal with her influence over him. She’s the devil who torments his visions, and he can’t even successfully beat off at home after the meeting without her appearing uninvited.
In Israel, Ali discovers Maura’s father lives close to the hotel and gently prods her to drive out and confront? Reunite? Simply meet with him? Jerry Adler plays Moshe with a cryptic reserve. Despite his garish mansion (“He lives like a Malibu Jew!”, Ali exclaims) and tacky commercials, he doesn’t come across as loud or boorish in person. While he doesn’t understand the concept of transgender, he isn’t dismissive or cruel towards Maura. He patiently shares pictures of his Israeli family with Ali as Maura attempts to compose herself well enough to ask where the hell Moshe has been this whole time.
Moshe talks a bit of how miserable life was for him in a home dominated by Maura’s grandfather, Haim. He makes a few off-hand remarks about how Haim had ”fists like cantaloupe” and how readily he’s bring them down if Moshe displeased him, and how all too happy Moshe was to grab his coat when Haim told him to leave. Moshe describes a home that was irrevocably shattered by the holocaust, and whatever shame he may have felt from fleeing was nothing compared to the liberation of distancing himself from a household so broken, it could never be made whole. There’s no catharsis to the meeting. Their pain is both so big and so distant that no conventional recrimination could possibly address two people who have built their entire lives away from each other. The major breakthrough is when Moshe mentions Gittel -Rose’s sister- whose history in pre-war Germany was beautifully told through Ali’s ancestor visions in season 2. Maura is stunned to discover she isn’t the only transgender person in her family.
Finally, Shelly has a breakthrough in her improv group when she takes on the identity of Mario, a stereotypical Italian tough guy who doesn’t take anybody’s shit and walks right out of the theater after class with an indestructible swagger. To be so self-assured is empowering for Shelly and she celebrates by going to the deli and ordering a gigantic sandwich. And it looked really delicious.
- Maybe Shelly won’t be able to break out of Mario persona and Transparent will have its own Andy Kaufman-esque Latka Gravas/Vic Ferrari storyline.