When Amazon's Transparent debuted in 2013, it was at the forefront of a new wave of awareness and visibility about trans people and trans rights. The show was given accolades for its depiction of trans storylines, and creator Jill Soloway and members of the cast were invited to the White House. Now, four years later with a new administration in office, the political climate is... different, to say the least. In some ways, the award-winning drama, whose fourth season premieres Friday, is more needed than ever — even as the creators feel the weight of added responsibility as they go to work every day.
"We felt like we were riding a wave of social glory... at the forefront of a civil rights movement," star Amy Landecker, who plays Sarah Pfefferman, recalls of the early years. "I think we're all feeling like our jobs now are more combative and vital, that we're sort of a resistance in existing... It's also personal to us. We're a very integrated set with a lot of queer people and gender nonconforming and trans people. We are a family, and ... you know that the people that you love and care about are actively being discriminated against when they walk out the door. You want to do whatever you can to make the rest of the world feel for them the way that the set feels. So, it's a personal mission. It's not just an idea."
That mission, since Season 1, has been to humanize trans people and their experiences. With trans rights continuing to be under fire, the best way for the show to #resist is by telling authentic stories, often inspired by the real-life experiences of trans cast members like Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette.
"Before hatred and transphobia is ignorance, and I think we have an opportunity to just say, 'Learn,'" Tambor says. "That word, when you see it in print, 'Transgender,' it's just a word. These are people. And I think that's what we're trying to do is, get the message out. Understand that these are people."
Adds Billings, who plays Maura's roommate Davina, whose back story is explored extensively this season: "I don't think we have to hit anybody over the head with anything. We get to really get a peek into a world that very few cis people are able to look into, in a really profound way, because you have trans people actually in the story. ... That's what I'm the most proud of."
Transparent doesn't mention the 2016 election or any members of the Trump administration by name — but it doesn't have to. The show is plenty political even as it moves the action away from the United States almost entirely, with much of the fourth season taking place in Israel.
As the Pfefferman family follows Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) to Israel in order to get in touch with their roots (anything more specific about why the family travels there would be a spoiler), the journey brings with it a number of revelations for individual characters, as well as a reevaluation of what is meant by the term "family." A sequence in Episode 2, which Maura and her daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) going through a TSA checkpoint while high on pot gummies as they prepare to board their flight to the Holy Land, coaxes the viewer in with uproarious humor before delivering a gut-punch seconds later.
Many of the characters undergo major shifts this season — particularly the Pfefferman children, Ali, Sarah and Josh (Jay Duplass), who decide to check out a 12-step meeting to determine whether they are sex addicts — but the episodes really hammer home how far Maura has come since we first met her, as Mort, in the series' first episode. Here, Maura seems more settled and at peace with herself, even as new information comes to light that alters her self-perception. In previous seasons, she seemed to be at the center of all the Pfefferman family drama, with her relatives' collective and individual chaos swirling around her. This season, Maura seems above it all — able to offer her children, particularly Ali, support without allowing or forcing her own issues to become intertwined with theirs.
At the same time, much of the season is about boundaries, "occupied territories" (both political and personal), and the walls we put up between each other on a daily basis. Set against the gigantic metaphor of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which Soloway describes as "the ultimate binary" — nowhere is this more evident in the Transparent universe than between Josh and his mother Shelly (Judith Light), who decides to move in with her son and explores a new outlet for her creative energy in the form of improv comedy.
"We are so separated in this country. You're either for Trump or you're against Trump. There's this line that's been drawn that feels very much like a border," Landecker says. "I think the show is trying to tackle this idea of separation. It's not about attacking Trump personally. It's about attacking even the idea that we need to separate from each other, and that we cannot find common ground, and that we have to think in black and white. We have to think in male and female. We have to think in straight and gay. Maybe in the future, in an evolved society, that is not going to work for us, because it just creates conflict."
In Transparent Season 4, it's clear that merely exploring these ideas and telling these stories is a political act, in and of itself.
Season 4 of Transparent premieres Friday, Sept. 22 on Amazon.