In theory, there’s a lot of dramatic potential in the setup for the second half of this season of Transparent. The rest of the American Pfeffermans (minus Simon and Sarah and Len’s kids) arrive in Israel to meet Moshe, prompting a slight confrontation with his other family and kicking off a road trip that will consume much of the rest of the season. The well-preserved good looks of Moshe’s other daughters Shira and Ronit, the family’s easy bilingual humor, and the various men and women standing around with guns raise the specter of the cultural idea that Israelis are more rugged, athletic, and attractive—the new Jew. (It’d be unfair to say this trope is totally American, since it was developed as part of early Zionist thinking, but the anxiety it produces in the Los Angeles Pfeffermans is all-American.)
Add in Ali’s burgeoning interest in Palestine and the complexity inherent in any exploration of Israel, and you have a real shot at recreating the effortless blend of the personal and political that characterized the show’s first two seasons. But clocking in at just 22 minutes, “I Never Promised You A Promised Land” is the rare streaming TV episode that actually does feel too short; more like a sketch than an episode of Transparent. It’s a collection of scenes that point at what an Israel season of this show would be about without actually being about those things, and it makes it impossible to keep track of what’s going on.
Start with the personal: What, exactly, is supposed to be going on with the Pfeffermans right now? Sarah and Len have awkward Skype sex with Lila, which is funny in the comforting, broad way all Sarah and Len scenes are funny. Ali circles around being the killjoy who keeps bringing up Palestine, but the way she compares it to all sorts of other “binaries” suggests her newfound commitment is more about her. Josh continues to be the best Pfefferman child this season—the cut to a shot of Josh rolling over to embrace Rita’s apparition in bed after Ali asks him why he’s still awake is the closest Transparent has come to the intersection of the mystical and the comic all season.
Brina, however, continues to be the real MVP. Jenny O’Hara does phenomenal work this episode, demonstrating appropriate fear and concern at how quickly everything is moving when she gets out of the van to meet Moshe. “My father lives in this house?” she asks Ali, somehow imbuing the question with a lifetime of abandonment and denial. And when she starts apologizing to Moshe, it makes all the sense in the world, even though she doesn’t know why she has anything to apologize for. (Moshe, of course, accepts, even though he’s the one who abandoned Brina and Maura. Jerry Adler’s relentless, self-contained charm is crucial here, keeping at bay any questions about why the American Pfeffermans are willing to tolerate him.)
But most of the rest of “I Never Promised You A Promised Land” is about the Pfeffermans being in Israel—a country, a geographical area with varied populations of people in conflict, and, above all, a setting for some pretty shots of buildings from out the window of a moving bus. In addition to the rest of Moshe’s family, the show introduces Mark Ivanir as Nitzan, Moshe’s security guy and “your only chance to survive if a big Arab with a big knife tries to kill you” who does little to extract himself from the stereotype of a hyper-militaristic Israeli ex-soldier.
The Pfeffermans plan to have an “authentic” Bedouin dinner. They fight about Palestinians at a remove, as more of an exercise than anything else. They wander through the marketplaces of Jerusalem, trying vaguely to haggle while remaining susceptible to the scares of a little boy playing with poppers. They dance to show tunes on the bus, and they giddily let themselves be sucked in by the fervor of the Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall. They are, essentially, a group of 30-to-70-year-olds on a Birthright trip, with the same level of intellectual complexity.
Shelly invokes the Holocaust as a justification for the oppression and displacement of Palestinians, Maura reminds everyone that there were Jews in Israel before 1947, Ali grumbles, Josh jokes that maybe someone should just bomb Israel and start over, and Sarah insists: “Hey guys, maybe this is a little too complicated for a bus ride?” She has a point, but ending this kind of argument with someone saying “Let’s just, like, enjoy the ride!” before throwing on “What’s The Buzz” from Jesus Christ Superstar has the distinct feel of punting, especially for a show that has rarely been anxious about trying to externalize and manifest its politics. It might not be a revolution worth having if you can’t dance to it, but just dancing isn’t a revolution, either.
For each shot of the foods in the market stalls and the praying men, there are a few shots placed to suggest that maybe Israelis and Americans are not so different after all—women walk around with selfie sticks and the blinking toys in the market prompt Josh to compare Jerusalem to Venice Beach. But this is one arena in which Transparent can’t have it both ways, not really.
When Ali complains about the gendered division of prayer space at the Wall, Sarah says “Yeah, but it’s tradition.” If equality and modern progressive ideals are important to Transparent (and they seem to be), and if the show wants to genuinely investigate the relationship between American and Israeli Jews (and it seems to want to), it can’t resolve a conflict with the regressive practices of Israeli’s ultra-Orthodox by just having Ali cross the barrier herself. Like most of the potential personal arcs that could be happening at this point in the season, these anxieties are just left hanging, half-articulated.
During the meeting between the two branches of Pfeffermans, Ali yells at Josh about going to the West Bank, claiming (correctly) that American Jews’ fear of Palestinians is largely propaganda by the Israeli government—but given the tone Gaby Hoffmann has established for these kinds of political declarations on Ali’s part, it’s hard to tell whether she’s serious herself, or whether we’re supposed to take her seriously. This is the point where the show’s loss of control over its own perspective, the extent to which it sees the world alongside or above its characters, has its most significant consequences.
Shira is high in the ministry of finance, in the same government in which the minister of health compares gay people to the sinners who worshipped the golden calf. Is it unfair to expect Transparent to be even a little more thoughtful about these issues? After all, it’s just a TV show, and one tackling an issue that not many other series would be willing to dig into. But that standard isn’t high enough: For a long time, Transparent has wanted to be important, and has been treated as such—and it’s been consistently lauded for the specificity and thoughtfulness with which it depicts Jewish-American life.
Besides, if past seasons are any indication, Transparent is more than capable of finding its ethical sweet spot, understanding the humanity of most parties involve in a conflict and respecting their backgrounds and traditions while gently coming down against the continued, painful consequences of those behaviors. Len, originally kind of a pig, is now one of the best characters on the show. Maura and Leslie’s differences in feminist ideology were, if not reconcilable, at least handled with a degree of delicacy. Is Transparent just a goofy sitcom in the moments when it doesn’t want to think too hard? It shouldn’t be.
- “If Jesus was the son of God, then why did he just grow up to be a carpenter?” What would we do without Len?
- Both Len and Sarah’s understandings of their sex life seem to be centered on Lila—a lot of their sex scene in this episode focuses on one of them not being able to see her on the laptop screen.
- Also, who knew Len was so into Jesus Christ Superstar? Stray observations for this episode are just my Len appreciation corner.