The season premiere of Transparent, “Standing Order,” contains a sequence I want to move into, and build a home there, and start a family. It’s Sunday brunch at the Pfeffermans’, and the entire clan is present: Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) complains to Josh (Jay Duplass) of a nightmarish AirBnB guest; Shel (Judith Light) asks, to no avail, “how many we are”; Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Len (Ron Huebel) arrive with their kids, joking that the bagels and lox cost them a grand; Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) comes in with news of a lecture in Israel, her sister, Bryna (Jenny O’Hara), and nephew, Simon (Bashir Naim), happily in tow. It’s a fretful, cacophonous interlude (“idyllic” is not a term I’d use to describe it), set to the quickening pace of Bach’s English Suite No. 3; as the family sifts through clothes that once belonged to Grandma Rose, or as Simon performs magic for the squealing children, the swirling motion of the camera and Altmanesque chatter flood Ali with unpleasant memories, of Uncle Jerry’s groping hugs circa 1994. Still, when she comes up for air, it’s to Sarah’s suggestion that “we should do this every week,” with reference to a “standing order” at Canters: “Family’s gross,” she adds later, “but it’s important.”
Reminiscent of the wedding in Season Two’s “Kina Hora,” or the sprawling dinner in Season Three’s “To Sardines and Back,” it’s one of those stretches, as I wrote of the latter, “in which the Pfeffermans are so believably a ‘not-chosen family’—with all the history, or baggage, that entails—that I sometimes forget they’re fictional characters.” But it also registers as an emblem of, or reason for, Transparent’s lower profile of late: Six weeks after its debut—a lifetime, in streaming years—Season Four of Jill Soloway’s fretful, cacophonous dramedy has come and gone from the conversation. Perhaps the series has, as the saying goes, “jumped the shark”; it’s far from flawless, to be sure. (That AirBnB subplot is uncommonly disastrous.) Still, I found myself listening to “Everything Is Alright” from Jesus Christ Superstar, reprised multiple times over the course of the season, as a sort of psychic salve, and so I started thinking: What if the problem isn’t Transparent, but the conversation itself?
The promise of streaming is that of “the long tail”: We can now wait to “catch up” with a TV series until after it’s over, be it six weeks, six months, or even six years, guided by the guarantee that the episodes will be queued up, en masse, as if no time had passed at all. (This “guarantee” is itself suspect, of course. As networks and studios—see CBS, or Disney—angle for a larger slice of the streaming-revenue pie, film and TV properties are constantly disappearing from one platform and popping up on another; the decline of the cable “bundle” has simply made way for its streaming successor, with subscriptions to multiple platforms replacing the “packages” offered by Comcast or Cox.) But the flip side of the long tail is the short shelf life: If they don’t sink like a stone, streaming-only series that release an entire season at once tend to attract a raft of reviews, Q&As, and written-through features at the time of their premiere; two or three weeks of “hot takes,” “thinkpieces” and traffic-seeking “news” items; and then fade once again into the remorseless clutter that is “peak TV,” supplanted by newer series, newsier items, hotter takes.
There are, as always, exceptions: Stranger Things “content” (and let’s be clear: much of it is merely that) unfailingly attracts readers, which explains, in part, its appearance of pop-cultural dominance; while they’re linear series, offering new opportunities for comment every Sunday for seven, eight, 10, weeks at a stretch, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are also, in the editorial parlance, “evergreen.” Otherwise, though, the “public square” for streaming series in particular has become almost claustrophobic, mirroring a similar effect on the film festival circuit: If you lack the time or ability to see the latest Netflix sensation in its first couple weekends, or the new indie darling at Sundance or Cannes, by the time you get around to it, it’s already been through initial reactions, the inevitable backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, if it’s been deemed worthy of sustained analysis at all. At minimum, the writing that circulates on Twitter and Facebook immediately after one or another premiere—the places, for better or worse, where most of us encounter the “conversation” I’m talking about—have long since fallen so far down “the feed” they may as well be at the bottom of a well, unseen and unheard except for a faint echo.
The trouble for Transparent, at least since the pioneering sheen of its premise—Maura’s coming out as a trans woman—began to wear off, is that it resists the frequently reductive nature of this “conversation,” which, in the hothouse atmosphere of the social web, reflects the intense pressure to “drive clicks,” “go viral,” “attract shares.” Game of Thrones fan theories succeed on this front; so does the drip-drip-drip of “news” (casting speculation, release date announcements, posters and teasers and trailers and other non-stories) that precedes Marvel’s properties, serial and cinematic alike.
Transparent, by contrast, is as messy and rangy, as prickly and strange, as the Sunday brunch that defines “Standing Order,” unable, and unwilling, to offer a singular “angle” or obvious “take.” Season Four alone is so thickly descriptive of the Pfeffermans, alone and together, that it seems more suited to the slow meting-out of the cable drama than it does the swift gulp of the binge. One may read this as praise or damnation, but Transparent is, in essence, a handful of series, all coiling together around the Pfefferman family tree: Shel’s “Mario” character, developed at her improv class, is straight out of a sitcom; Maura, with her flowing shawls and gentle mien, inhabits an airy slice of life; Ali and Josh, each experiencing fantastical visions, are in separate serious “comedies” with an occasional cross-over episode; Sarah’s in a sex farce, co-starring her (formerly ex-) husband and her kid’s preschool teacher (Alia Shawkat). It’s set in 1981, as Maura promises God “to stop the dressing and the lying and the hiding” after Ali’s premature birth; later in the decade, at the height of the AIDS crisis, as Davina (Alexandra Billings) delivers a knockout performance of “I’m Just a Prisoner”; in 1994, as in Ali’s flashback; in the present, with the Pfeffermans on a pilgrimage to Israel, which they keep comparing, rather hilariously, to L.A. Its subject is sexual exploration, sexual molestation, sex addiction; Israel, Palestine, the uses and abuses of boundaries; queer identities, queer rights and the gulf between them; memory and history and trauma and family. It is, in other words, the rich, ragged, sometimes frustrating, often sublime, always hard-to-peg series that most benefits from the rise of streaming’s “long tail”—in the absence of Amazon, it likely wouldn’t exist—and most suffers from the short shelf life that comes with it, from the demand for easily assimilated pans and paeans, for bomb-throwing essays and bite-sized quick hits, for the immediate and polarizing reaction, positive or negative, that might secure one among countless stories its moment in the sun.
That Transparent itself appears to understand and accept this is, for me, among the aspects of the series that still recommend it, even—maybe especially—as it grows shaggier with age. Season Four toggles between the soothing strains of Jesus Christ Superstar and more than one fretful, cacophonous argument (on the bus to Jerusalem, inside an Israeli settlement; over sex, politics, personal animus and much more besides), as if to acknowledge that family is indeed both gross and important, or to underscore the sorrowful point made by Maura and Bryna’s estranged father, Moshe (Jerry Adler): “Some families got out,” he says of the Holocaust, referring to the enduring grief of the wife he fled to build a new life in Israel. “But no family ever got out clean.”
Highly condensed, largely limited to a few familiar techniques of style and matters of substance, the more mercenary approach to TV criticism I’m describing here—of which I am also guilty, as both writer and editor—is, in this sense, incompatible with Transparent, the fundamental feature of which is its indifference to cleanliness, its refusal to tidy up the long tail that links our many presents to our many pasts. It strikes me now that the one moment of near-silence in Season Four comes after Shel confesses her own secret, that she was molested as a child, in the high desert, leaving only the wind to sound through the end credits. After all, it’s her improv class—another fretful, cacophonous setting—that informs the most accurate description I’ve heard of the series’ radical emotional abundance, the fact that a certain chaos is its standing order: “Yes, and to life” isn’t simply advice for the fledgling performer, or person. It’s the Transparent approach to television.
Season Four of Transparent is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.