When we last visited the Pfefferman clan, Josh was dumping Rita’s ashes into the ocean, the family was holding an impromptu seder on a cruise ship, and Shelly was belting out her glorious one-woman show To Shell and Back. It was a breakthrough moment: Suddenly, Shelly stepped out of the tone-deaf, comic-relief role and forced her family to see her as an actual person. It also held the possibility of an important shift within the family dynamics. After so much storytelling energy centered on Maura’s transition, the season-three finale signaled a new phase for Transparent. Maybe there was a way for the show to no longer be so laser-focused on Maura’s life as a trans woman. Maybe it could just be about a family.
Don’t get me wrong: These are still the Pfeffermans we’re talking about. Even in a world where the story takes Maura’s transition as just another thing that’s happened in this family, they’re all still going to be barely functional, codependent people perpetually probing their own gender identities, sexual histories, and familial relationships. They will never be The Brady Bunch. And lest we forget, they have had breakthroughs before. Who’s to say that this will be a shift that actually takes?
In that context, “Standing Order” feels like a simultaneously old and new visit with the Pfefferman family. The new is all around them: Here’s Maura, reunited with her sister Bryna, being called Moppa by her kids and grandkids. They’re no longer in the family home. Shelly and Maura are not together. They’re all considering new plans and new challenges.
But they also like a family snapping back to some earlier version of themselves. They’re all gathered together, eating familiar food, revisiting old arguments and old topics. Maura is back in academia. Sarah and Len are back together. Ali and Josh seem like the people they’ve always been: more than a little lost, adrift in the family’s prevailing winds. Shelly is using a bone from a whole smoked fish to pick her teeth while yelling about the two-state solution. These are not new Pfeffermans. Maybe for the first time, we’re seeing what the Pfeffermans probably looked like before the bombshell of Maura’s transition kicked off the whole show.
When Sarah and Len go to the deli to order food for the family meal, she is delighted to select traditional holiday things. She orders potato pancakes and a whole smoked fish, and she’s a little sad when the guy behind the counter doesn’t remember that the Pfeffermans used to have a standing order. Later, she tells her siblings that it’s nice to have a standing order — something reliable and comfortable and familiar. This episode similarly feels like the Pfeffermans attempting to get back to a “standing order” kind of place.
This is also the first season premiere of Transparent that doesn’t present Maura’s transition as a central story. The very first episode of the series had a family dinner that turned into Maura revealing this part of herself to her children. The first episode of season two was Sarah and Tammy’s disastrous non-wedding, prominently featuring a moment when the wedding photographer calls Maura “sir.” The first episode of season three found Maura on her own, trying to figure out how to orient herself around the idea of being privileged. And here, in season four? Maura teaches a class. She talks about giving a paper at a conference. She has a date with a man, though her sexual life is also elided — there are few details, and there’s no discussion. Maura’s transition never comes up at dinner. It’s there in the undercurrent, but no more so than any other known fact about the Pfeffermans. It just is.
To be clear, I don’t want or expect Transparent to no longer be about trans issues. It’s been a vanguard series, one of the first works about a trans character that’s broken out into mainstream cultural awareness. That position has bought the show both worthy plaudits and necessary critiques. But it will be fascinating if Transparent shifts into a just-as-radical space where Maura’s life is interesting and complicated and fraught and funny, but no more so than anyone else in her family. A trans character whose life is valuable and valued as a normal part of the everyday.
The downside is that the onus shifts to the next generation of Pfeffermans, who are … an uneven bunch. (They’re a mess, is what I’m saying.) When the burden is on them, your ability to enjoy Transparent quickly boils down to how high your tolerance is for messy, selfish, frequently unlikeable characters, even though they’re inside a show that is beautifully filmed, tenderly written, and sometimes abstract to a point of boldness.
My tolerance is quite high, it turns out, especially when we get scenes of the three Pfefferman kids together. It helps when Transparent seems to have a sense of humor about the family’s collective issues, even when it’s also doing some very serious deep dives into trauma and self-knowledge. Ali, Sarah, and Josh taking a BuzzFeed quiz about whether they’re sex addicts is one of those effective Transparent scenes that pulls off that magic trick quite nicely. For the show, it raises serious questions: How do all of these characters use sex to replace something else in their lives? How do their sex lives get entangled with Ali’s gender explorations or Sarah’s pansexuality? But the scene also manages to be pretty funny. The three of them standing on the roof, silently trying to count their sexual partners? Oh, Pfeffermans.
This premiere episode doesn’t particularly have a plot. If it does, the trip to the sex-addict meeting is probably the main piece of it, with discussion of Maura’s upcoming trip to Israel as an important building block for what will be coming soon. Instead, it’s mostly about scenes and realizations: Josh’s epiphany that bodily reaction is not the same as consent feels crucial, as does Ali’s insistence that her relationship with Leslie was not transactional or unbalanced. As a nice connection with earlier threads from the series, Ali spends much of the episode trying to engulf herself in her now-deceased grandma Rose’s afghan. Ali’s curiosity about and connection with Rose is one of Transparent’s favorite thematic veins, and season four will likely continue to explore those parallels.
As ever, Transparent also explores its characters pulling and being pulled in two possible directions. One is represented by the experience the siblings feel at the sex-addict meeting, and the thing Ali is perpetually reaching toward. She looks up at the ceiling of that room — this arching, curving, majestic space, satisfyingly symmetrical and uplifting — and she considers ambiguities and abstractions and mysticism. She thinks about time and space, and trying to negotiate between the particularity of her own self and her desire to connect with something unifying and grand.
Meanwhile, Ali and the Pfeffermans are pulled in another direction, represented by the episode’s most impressive, most Transparent-y setpiece: the family meal. They speak — no, they yell — over one another. The camera swings wildly back and forth and it’s hard to distinguish individual sentences or even who’s speaking. Bits of news, bits of gossip, bits of opinion, bits of tradition, all layer on top of each other in a heap, all pointing in one direction — inward. They’re directed away from the rest of the world and toward the family, toward the well-worn, complicated mess of each other. This is the Transparent I love, even when it’s dysfunctional chaos.