Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

“How much longer is this gonna go on for?” Ali Pfefferman asks, exasperated. She’s talking to a team of people grilling her on her involvement with Leslie Mackinaw, the older professor played by Cherry Jones with whom she had a sexual relationship over the course of the past two seasons of Transparent. But she could just as easily be talking about Transparent itself, which in its fourth season premiere creates a few warm, funny moments for its characters, but is also having a hard time warding off the distinctly uncomfortable, stale feeling of having overstayed its welcome.

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As this season begins, the Pfeffermans are closer than ever, but it doesn’t feel like too much has changed. The bright spots are more for people at the margins like Brina, who has blossomed after the death of her mother and, pleasantly, has developed more of a relationship with Maura. Sarah is, more or less, back with Len—her sexual “standing order.” (They have sex while discussing their daughter’s field trip, which is funny even though it is also a bit straight out of a Judd Apatow movie.) Ali is still floating around, living under the Pfefferman house and haphazardly interacting with Maura’s very weird, possibly European, possibly nudist AirBnB tenants. And Josh has reluctantly asked Shelly to move out of her condo and into his house, even though she spends all of her time trying to get him to have dinner at 5:00 p.m. and screaming the word “tushie” when he isn’t in the room.

Maura, meanwhile, is going to Israel. She’s teaching enthusiastically again, apparently covering different forms of political decision-making. (The blackboard is covered in phrases like “modified consensus” and “general assembly.”) Her students love her, expressing shocking dismay when she says she’ll be out of class for two weeks. Without going into too much detail right now, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that several episodes this season take place in Israel, and that the rather complicated relationship between American Jews and Israel is introduced here via a joke about the last Jew who went to preach in the Holy Land, which is pretty representative of the rest of the subplot. “Professor Pfefferman out,” she says while dabbing.

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Not only does this moment feel like a forced sequel to other seasons’ moments of Maura trying to be a cool teen (“Yassss!”), it raises a bigger, ongoing question of what our relationship is supposed to be to these characters. Are we laughing with Maura? At her? Transparent has consistently wanted the answer to be “both,” which is fine as far as it goes but also requires a level of tonal control over individual moments that was present in the show’s first two seasons but that started to slip last year and that really isn’t present here. Obvious jabs at the characters blend with scenes where they’re supposed to be in control or sympathetic, and having it both ways isn’t an excuse for the manner in which the show seems to have lost the plot.

Take our introduction to Ali this season. She doesn’t think anything serious is going on. After all, she never felt uncomfortable with her relationship, at least not until Leslie starting asking her for an emotional commitment. But, the investigators are quick to remind her, Leslie has a very long history with her students, including undergraduates. These are people who could potentially be said to be victims (we can’t say for sure, though there were several complaints). Just because Ali personally didn’t see a problem didn’t mean that nothing was going on, but it’s unclear how we’re supposed to respond to that information—Ali had avenues to address Leslie’s behavior, but we don’t. It’s also very difficult to read this scene outside the context Jill Soloway’s brief, public relationship with Leslie inspiration Eileen Myles, which brought the production of I Love Dick to Marfa and inspired one of the best tweets ever sent.

The interrogation is one of the more anxious scenes in the episode, shot by Soloway in a series of shots alternating between the panel, staring at Ali positioned solidly in the center of the frame, and Ali’s own confused, almost oblivious face. It’s appropriately disconcerting, brought back later in the episode by Ali hiding under a blanket, hearing herself say “nothing was done to me” and visualizing the investigators in a flashback to the previously unseen creepy Uncle Jerry, who seemingly molested her as a teen, or at least was pretty unsubtle about feeling her up. It’s always good to see Emily Robinson on this show, but adding a fresh layer of abuse and childhood trauma to these characters is a cheap way of introducing new tension and complexity to their growth. Also, wasn’t the point of the earlier scene in part that Ali is only capable of seeing how Leslie’s behavior affected her?

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Appropriately, Soloway makes this connection in the episode’s other cringeworthy scene, following all of the assembled Pfeffermans at a Sunday dinner with raucous piano music over close shots of the camera swinging into the faces of each member of the Pfefferman family, who become at least a little monstrous in the process—Shelley picks her teeth, Ali noshes on a bagel, Simon pulls handkerchiefs out of his mouth—all while people play golf on the TV in the background and Jewish people yell at each other about Israel. (I’ve had this exact experience.) It’s funny, but it’s a far cry from the level of spiritual and artistic importance Transparent has commanded, or attempted to command, over the course of its run.

Where Transparent has taken swings at big, serious concepts in the past, the best parts of “Standing Order” are all small: Sarah’s joy in going to the deli to buy black and white cookies as a form of attachment to her family’s past, Shelly starting a new life in Silver Lake “where they appreciate artists,” all three Pfefferman children realizing they forgot to smoke weed while taking a quiz about sex and love addiction. Eventually, led by the somehow-surprising revelation that each of their lives is ruled by their metaphorical (or literal) dicks, the Pfefferman siblings go to a sex and love addicts’ meeting.

At the meeting, “Standing Order” has its only moment of genuine emotion and connection to one of the characters, when one of the men in attendance talks about the blurred boundaries between his own consent and his body’s horny impulses. “I felt like, if my body is responding, it means yes,” he says, as the camera holds on Josh, clearly connecting the sentiment to his relationship with Rita. It’s an awakening for Josh, who has for the entire run of the show resisted fully coming to terms with what happened to him, and an excellent quiet acting moment for Jay Duplass. But he’s had similar experiences before, coming up against the edge of genuine progress and emotional growth without ever fully working through his issues. How much longer is this gonna go on for?

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Stray observations

  • Len says of the sport happening in the background “It doesn’t end, that’s the beauty of golf,” to which Shelly replies, “This is so goyish.”
  • Another uncomfortable but also phenomenal Shelly line: “I will tell you what the problem with the two-state solution is, it sounds too much like the Final Solution.”
  • Sarah, summarizing the episode: “Family is gross, but it’s important.”

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