[Content warning: This column discusses sexual abuse.]
On Sept. 22, Amazon released season four of “Transparent,” the award-winning drama centering on the beloved and complex Pferfferman family. Intense, profound and heartwarming, season four did not fall short of expectations. In fact, this season—filmed in beautiful and contentious Israel where the Pfeffermans take a family trip— was truly the pinnacle of the show’s greatness.
For those of you unfamiliar with “Transparent,” the show revolves around the complicated lives of the five members of the Pferfferman family—composed of parents Maura and Shelly and full-grown children Sarah, Josh and Ali. The series intimately explores the lives of each family member, delving into his or her familial relationships, romantic relationships, gender identities, sexualities and spiritualities. It could be thought of as a more complex and dramatic Modern Family that also shines a light on the LGBTQ and Jewish communities.
One of the central themes of the show is gender. Seasons one through three of the show dealt heavily with Maura Pferfferman’s transition to womanhood, depicting her struggles in coming to terms with her gender late in life and the effects it has on her relationships. While the show definitely focuses a lot on Maura as she is the “transparent” of “Transparent,” it explores the other family members just as well.
Throughout the series, each family member deals with his or her own inner turmoil. The show interweaves pivotal and often heartbreaking flashbacks of each character’s past with their current states. There is Sarah, the oldest sister who is going through a rough patch in her marriage and finds herself turning to sex as a source of fulfillment. There is Josh, the middle child, who is haunted by the problematic relationship he had with his older babysitter when he was a teenager. Ali, the most interesting character in my opinion, deals with trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life intellectually as well as her newfound attraction to women. Finally, there is Shelly, the neurotic mother, who we see is constantly being mistreated by the other family members and struggling to keep the family all together.
Obviously, there is a lot going on with each character, which makes for very interesting dynamics between each person. Season four captured tense moments as crises and interpersonal tensions reach a boiling point. Halfway through the season, the family takes a trip to Israel during which each member has time to ponder his or her situation in life. We see Maura and Ali cultivating a special bond as Ali has more realizations about her gender and sexuality, Josh and Shelly struggling to get along as they both come to terms with their own anxieties about past abusive relationships and Sar- ah and her husband exploring a polyamorous relationship. While relationships ebb and flow, there is a special emphasis on religion in this season as the family is enveloped in the culture of Israel.
What I really liked about this season is that it had a lot of delicate but powerful moments. One particularly memorable scene was when Ali goes to the Western Wall, where Jewish men and women perform their prayers separately and are divided by a fence. Ali notices that the men’s side seems happier and more celebratory while the side she is on is a lot more contemplative and downtrodden. Ali then has a sudden yearning to experience the other side so she puts on a yarmulke and wistfully walks over. The scene depicts Ali caught in a pivotal moment where she questions her connection to her gender all the while feeling very spiritually awakened: an interesting and personal interplay.
With these intense moments, entangled relationships and complex inner-turmoils, I was easily hooked on the show once again. But alas, in the middle of episode five—just when I thought the show couldn’t get better—I was apprised of a real-life plot twist that threw my relationship with the show for a loop. Jeffrey Tambor, who plays the transgender star of the show, Maura Pfefferman, was accused of sexual harassment by his former assistant and one of his co-stars, both of which are transgender women themselves.
Obviously, I was horrified, outraged and felt betrayed. At this point in this awful tide of sexual assault springing from Hollywood, I’m sadly not surprised anymore when I hear an allegation. However, I was utterly shocked when I heard that Jeffrey Tambor—out of all men—was and is a perpetrator of this horrific culture. How could someone who could portray a woman with such sensitivity and grace also be a victimizer of women?
So now what? I had to temporarily stop watch- ing the show. I know that in many cases an actor’s character isn’t the actor themselves, but I couldn’t see Maura Pfefferman the same anymore, knowing that the person playing her didn’t champion the basic things she stood for. I did end up watching the
rest of the show, but felt conflicted about my love for it. Eventually, I realized that a piece of pop culture such as a television show—that has so many people contributing to it and that doesn’t embody a representation of the actors themselves—can still be held in high regard despite the problems of the artists. On a separate note, however, there is absolutely no excuse for Tambor’s actions and my admiration for him has been destroyed.
Despite this, the show itself really is wonderfully written and composed. Moreover, it does give a voice to marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community. I would definitely give it a try—it has important things to say! However, be warned that like all Hollywood creations, the people who have helped in its creation may be problematic.