Here’s a spoiler alert: When the heavily Jewish, transgender drama “Transparent” brought the Pfefferman family to Israel for much of the recently launched Season 4, it was more of a staycation than a vacation.
So says Mark Ivanir, the Ukranian-born character actor of “Homeland” fame who is one of two Israeli actors — the other is Ayelet Zurer — who appears in the latest season of the US series.
Ivanir filmed with the “Transparent” crew in the desert valleys and Paramount studios of Los Angeles, where he helped develop his heat-packing Israeli security guard character. He appears in episodes 6, 7 and 8 as Nitzan, who is hired to accompany the family on their bus trip through Israel.
“The ‘Transparent’ people are serious people,” he said. “They do their due diligence, and they kind of knew where they were going with this.”
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Ivanir’s character Nitzan first ruffles the feathers of Aly Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) when they have a conversation about whether Israel’s problems are a result of politics or human rights. The entire family then embarks on a discussion about the Holocaust, Jews in Poland, pre-state Israel and its current status, as a way of creating context for viewers.
Much of that, said Ivanir, was improvised.
When Ivanir’s agent first called him with the offer, the script originally called for a minor role that he eventually rewrote, and which was lengthened into a meatier role, including a crucial scene toward the end involving Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) and family matriarch Shelly (Judith Light), who unfolds a secret of her own.
“They were open to anything, to any improvisation,” he said. “I changed many things to make it sound real. I wanted it to be something I can stand behind, knowing this is what this kind of Israeli would say.”
The entire season was shot between March and May 2017, and while most of it was filmed in Los Angeles, including a scene with Bedouin and the Western Wall, Hoffmann did travel to Israel to shoot some of the outdoor scenes, particularly those that took place in the Palestinian territories.
Ivanir’s character was based on a security guard named Nitzan whom “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway met on a recent trip she made to Israel.
“She’d say, ‘Dude, you really remind me of the real Nitzan,’” said Ivanir.
This rollicking ride of a season through transitions of all kinds — sexual, familial, emotional and, yes, political — feels remarkably spot-on when considering the sensitive issues being prodded and poked at throughout the ten episodes.
It begins with the opening, dreamy montage of 1970s-era photos of someone’s family trip to Israel, presumably that of Soloway, the Jewish creator of this show about a Los Angeles family whose world changes when their father comes out as transgender.
There are the typical photo album shots of a family on the Tel Aviv beach, with a soldier in fatigues standing nearby, a ride on a camel and what appears to be a young Soloway, waving from a narrow passage on a desert hike.
This family trip, however, is launched by Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), the family’s 68-year-old transgender parent, who has returned to academia and gets invited to present at a conference in Tel Aviv, an invitation she accepts with pleasure. Her youngest daughter, Aly Pfefferman, is undergoing her own life transition and decides, at the last minute, to come along for the ride.
From the moment the two are ensconced in a Tel Aviv hotel, meeting Maura’s academic contact and then discovering a shocking family secret from Maura’s side, they marvel at modern Israel, its comforts and wonders.
Aly, however, following an airport incident that results in an Instagram explosion of followers, meets Lyfe, a social activist who brings her to Ramallah, telling Aly that she won’t spend money in the occupied territories of Israel. Lyfe introduces Aly to a crew of gay activists living on a farm in the West Bank, where Aly feels more at home than she’s felt for some time.
The group talks about breaking the boycott with Israel for hard-to-get items like tomatoes, avocados and, of course, Bamba, the peanut butter-flavored snack popular with Israeli kids.
There are details throughout that are marvelously exact for anyone familiar with Middle Eastern life, as when the Arab or Israeli characters speak in Hebrew or Arabic in front of the English-speaking American visitors, switching to English when their patter becomes rude.
When the rest of the Pfeffermans join the trip, hilarity and confusion abound much of the time, but the cultural references continue.
Sarah Pfefferman’s (Amy Landecker) ex-husband, Len (Rob Huebel), exclaims that WiFi in Israel “sucks,” a comment that is sure to bring a chuckle to any Israeli who lauds the nearly ever-present Wifi available in the small land of Israel.
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There’s the family’s stop in Tapuz, a fictional Jewish settlement, where Sarah and Len need to drop off a package for a friend’s mother, and where Aly feels uncomfortable and ends up leaving for Ramallah. Her defection brings about a discussion about Bethlehem and borders and Christians Arabs, all references and conversational gambits that ultimately bring the “Transparent” dynamic to Israel and the West Bank.
Israel’s religious conflicts also appear when the family heads to the Western Wall and Aly views the discrepancies between the women’s and men’s sides and finds a way to neatly handle that division, as only a “Transparent” character would.
But as more than one reviewer has commented, Season 4 is also an ode to Israeli travel, taking the Pfeffermans from Tel Aviv to a luxurious Caesarea villa, through green forests and exotic Bedouin tents, where they loll around, eating fresh dates and discussing their lives.
And given that this is “Transparent,” there’s always something to talk about.
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