I watched the new season of Transparent three weeks ago when it first came out. I’d seen an episode or two before and was never much moved. But I was intrigued to see how the show would handle a plotline taking place mostly in Israel, and so I sank into the couch for some bingeing. It took me nearly a month to recover: I can’t recall ever reacting to a television show so viscerally, yelling at the screen in futile hope that my shrieks will pierce the characters’ impenetrable solipsism.
I shared my observations with a friend, a longtime Transparent aficionado, who chuckled at my distress. I was being, he informed me, adorably childlike, expecting all the people on TV to be lovable and nice. Didn’t I know that in this, the Golden Age of Television, complex and flawed characters were the rocks upon which our church of nonstop streaming is built? And couldn’t I accept the Pfeffermans, the show’s protagonists, as just the latest in a long line of imperfect fictions here to startle, entertain, and educate us?
No, I said, I couldn’t. Because the Pfeffermans weren’t just TV characters. The Pfeffermans were a pfroblem.
Put starkly, it’s this: What to do when an artist, uninterested by the rich range of emotion to which humanity has always turned in moments of trial and triumph, decides instead to indulge in the sort of obsessively self-indulgent exploration previously reserved for mirrors and shrinks? Are we to believe these characters, so often created by writers who bear more than a passing resemblance to their fiction (see under: Dunham, Lena), are intended as parody? Are we to admire them as a clean window into a murky mind of an artist? Observe them anthropologically as emissaries of their remote tribe and culture? Pity them their shortcomings? Insist that salvation is at hand if only they try hard? What the hell are we supposed to feel when we see these vile beings pontificate about things they know nothing about, hurt each other for no reason at all, and succumb to their appetites like a toddler stirred by the sight of a treat?
You’re free, of course, to believe that the answer is none of the above and that art and artists have a responsibility to no one and to nothing except their own sweltering vision. But do that, and you may end up like Sarah Pfefferman, who in the new season—very mild spoiler alert—announces that she’s writing a parenting book based on a technique she learned from a woman with whom she and her husband are having group sex and who, in turn, adapted it from the machinations of sexual dominance and submission. In other words, believe in the artistic self too much and you’ll end up with nothing more than autoerotic satisfaction, brief and thrilling while it lasts and inherently impotent.
Trying hard to decipher the meaning of the Pfeffermans, then, I wondered if I was having so much trouble with the folks on TV because they reminded me too much of folks in real life. Looking at Ali, for example, the family’s youngest and most ideologically rigid daughter, was I not seeing every muddle-minded moaner who emerged from graduate school with existential befuddlement and a penchant for mistaking preening for progress? And Josh, middle child, music producer, how many like him have I known, spoiled sons of privilege, as inert as sheets in the wind, nasty and brutish and short? Was I not merely projecting my bile onto the screen?
Grappling with these questions, I settled to watch another episode, in which the Los Angeles Pfeffermans meet the Israeli Pfeffermans for lunch in a gorgeous seaside villa. The sabras are tanned and confident. They have meaningful jobs and meaningful lives. Their American kin do not: None work, none create, none engage with ideas in any way more profound than irritably blurting out talking points. Anyone tasked with taking sides would most likely conclude that the whiny, slouchy gringos were beyond redemption.
And maybe that’s the pfoint of the Pfeffermans. Maybe it is, inadvertently or otherwise, a Grand Guignol that invites all of us who are terrified to think of the depredations of American culture to peek in and see our worst fears played out, soothingly, as farce. Writing about Girls, the closest show to Transparent in its stunning capacity for gazing at navels, Ross Douthat observed that “the thing that makes Dunham’s show so interesting, the reason it inspired a certain unsettlement among some of its early fans, is that it often portrays young-liberal-urbanite life the way, well, many reactionaries see it: as a collision of narcissists educated mostly in self-love, a sexual landscape distinguished by serial humiliations — a realm at once manic and medicated, privileged and bereft of higher purpose.”
American Jews who are bewildered when members of their community cheer on a convicted terrorist, say, or champion a noxious bigot in the name of some higher morality that supposedly represents some purer form of Judaism need only look at Ali, Josh, Sarah and the gang and realize that they have nothing to worry about. The kids are not alright, and if the show in any way reflects the emotional and social realities of any actual human beings somewhere out there, whatever political and ideological side the Pfeffermans are on is bound to lose miserably. Like the Wailing Wall they visit in one episode, made of plaster and erected in the Paramount Studios parking lot, they are cheap knock-offs of a timeless original, bound to fold when they no longer serve their fleeting purpose. The rest of us may not see their neuroses magnified and extolled over season after season, but the rewards we reap—community, religion, nation, scholarship, wisdom, destiny—are truly transparent.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.