When histories are written about the rise of the Streaming Wars and the dawn of Peak TV, Transparent will be a prominent part of the tale. It was Amazon’s first significant original series, the first streaming show to win major awards (for Jeffrey Tambor’s performance in the title role, as newly-out trans woman Maura Pfefferman), and, along with Orange Is the New Black, a trailblazer for how trans characters were depicted and, eventually, cast on television.
It was a profoundly important show, and at times a great one. It wore its feelings on its sleeve in a way that could make its characters into insufferable narcissists, but could also make the experience of watching it as emotionally overwhelming as anything made for the small screen over the past five years. Tambor won the Emmys and got most of the attention, but the entire cast proved capable of going to astonishing places, and soon the series became not just about one woman’s transformation, but about how she inadvertently inspired everyone around her to change, for good and for all.
It was also — and I say this with love — a goddamn mess a lot of the time, particularly in its later seasons. It was impressive to see the series expand its focus beyond Maura to her ex-wife Shelley (Judith Light); Pfefferman siblings Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann); family rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn); Maura’s new trans friends Davina (Alexandra Billings) and Shea (Trace Lysette); and even prior generations of the Pfefferman clan. But Maura and many of the others could get lost in the shuffle, and the show was prone to getting trapped in narrative dead ends. Creator Jill Soloway — who, like Ali, realized they were non-binary over the course of making the show — was aware of how unbearable the Pfeffermans’ behavior could be, but still kept leaning into their worst traits, making the show more difficult to watch with each passing year. By the time Maura led the whole clan to Israel for the fourth season, Soloway and company seemed to have run out of things to say about most of the family.
A fifth season was in the works, with Soloway planning to hand things off to a new showrunner, when ironic calamity struck: Tambor was hit with multiple counts of sexual harassment against his trans co-workers, and was fired. The fifth season was soon being described as the fifth and final season, which eventually morphed into a two-hour special, Transparent: Musicale Finale, which debuts September 27th.
Transparent always had more black-box theater DNA running through it than your average Peak TV series. It bent the laws of time and space, fantasy, and reality with such ease that the shift into full-on musical territory seems par for the course. So when we open with Sarah driving her kids to school and belting out a Sheryl Crow-esque tune about the traffic on Sepulveda Blvd., it’s less startling than if, say, the Mother of Dragons were doing it on Game of Thrones.
Still, Musicale Finale is a weird mess even by Transparent standards. It’s not just that everyone is busting out into song, but that Soloway and their sibling Faith, who co-wrote it, have to work around Tambor’s exile, even as they’re attempting to squeeze an entire season’s worth of story into such a confined space.
The movie solves a problem like Maura the only way it can: by killing her off right before the story begins (she dies peacefully in bed), then finding ways to keep her onscreen, minus Tambor. So as the kids (with Ali now going by Ari) cope with grief in their own ways, Shelley begins having visions of her younger self interacting with a fantasy version of Maura as a little girl. Then she writes a play about her family and she quickly begins treating the tall, bald weed dealer (Shakina Nayfack) cast as Maura as if she were the genuine article.
It’s one of those devices where you have to know the real-life backstory to understand why the show is going there, even if some of the individual moments between Shelley and these substitute Mauras are very effective. In general, the shift into a more theatrical mode is very much to the benefit of two-time Tony winner Light, who was a relatively minor figure in the first season before slowly but surely becoming the series’ MVP. Musicale Finale leans so heavily on Shelley (and, to a degree, Ari and Davina) that Sarah and Josh often risk being forgotten in this family farewell, but there’s no question that Light is best equipped of all the regulars to go full Fosse(*). She sings with verve, dances with fury, and belts out the lyric “like a gentle soft reminder as you stretch out my vaginer” with all the joy you might want.
(*) Though the best musical number of all — a kind of mash-up of “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Turn Back, O Man” — belongs to Hahn. As was the case even when she was juggling the earlier seasons with her 15 other jobs, she’s spectacular and vulnerable in a way that will leave you wanting much more. And she also gets to act as the audience surrogate with her very vocal response to a particularly self-indulgent moment between the Pfefferman siblings.
The song-and-dance milieu also makes it easier to work in the faux Mauras and other fantasy devices than it would be in the slightly more buttoned-down reality of the regular series. The downside is that it undercuts a lot of the gravity of the situation. The actors are giving it their all, but the entire world of the show feels slightly less than real, even when people aren’t singing. Maura’s decision to be cremated(*), for instance, triggers an uncomfortable conversation between Sarah, her ex-husband Len (Rob Huebel) and their kids about Jews being burned in ovens in the Holocaust, with the kids asking, “Why us? What’s so awful about us?” As Sarah assures them that there’s nothing awful about them, or the Jewish people as a whole, the rhythm of the scene feels like it’s building to what would be a very awkward musical number — except that it doesn’t.
(*) Which allows for a cameo by Rainn Wilson as a mortician. I’d like to imagine he’s simply reprising the role of Arthur that Soloway and others used to write for him on Six Feet Under.
The Holocaust and the specificities of Jewish-American life remain prominent themes (Ari still wears a piece of jewelry that belonged to a trans ancestor who was murdered by the Nazis), and inform several of the songs. At least one, the concluding number, walks the knife-edge between inspiration and bad taste and (to these ears) lands on the right side. There have been times when the series drew more overt parallels between being trans and being Jewish (both oppressed and/or frequently shunned minorities), but the finale seems less interested in grand thematic statements than in simply saying goodbye to the Pfeffermans and their extended family.
And on that level, the Musicale Finale works. It’s all over the map narratively and tonally, and fans of characters like Sarah or Josh or Shea will feel frustrated with how little they get to do in the allotted time. But what would a farewell to Transparent be if it wasn’t equal parts clever and exasperating, delightful and baffling? The Pfeffermans didn’t ask for the hand life dealt any of them, nor did the creative team of the show ask to have to work around the abrupt departure of their lead actor. Both muddle through, one more time.
Late in the musical, Shelley assures one of her children, “You are not replaceable,” before adding, “Maura is not replaceable.” This musical mostly proves that sentiment right, but it’s a valiant, well-meaning effort.