Television

Transparent’s “Musicale Finale” Is a Must-See Train Wreck

The show’s characters are messy and bad with boundaries. So is its last episode.

Judith Light in Transparent.
Judith Light in the Transparent finale.
Amazon Studios

Transparent, the groundbreaking, award-winning Amazon series about a clan of agitated and agitating Los Angeles Jews and their trans parent, finishes not with a whimper but a choreographed musical number titled “Joyocaust.” It’s the climax of a movie-length “Musicale Finale” that works its way through various stages of OK-ness to crescendo with something so enthusiastically, earnestly nuts it achieves a kind of transcendence. A car crash that starts out as a fender bender and somehow somersaults into a 56-car pileup and fireball on the freeway, the episode is so whole-heartedly ill-conceived that I perversely recommend it.

Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, originally imagined that the series would run for seven seasons. That plan was interrupted in late 2017, when Jeffrey Tambor, who played Maura Pfefferman, a trans woman who comes out to her family in late middle age, quit the series while being investigated for sexually harassing members of the cast and crew. Soloway, and the production more generally, had already been struggling with Tambor, whose casting was the show’s original sin. Tambor was phenomenal as Maura, but he was also a cisgender man, and though the show eventually surrounded him with transgender writers and actors, Soloway became delicately vocal about regretting his casting. Transparent changed the culture, and Soloway’s own politics, so significantly that the series’ own protagonist had come to seem deeply problematic, markedly unwoke. Tambor’s departure sliced the political Gordian knot of his continued presence on the series, but what was left was bits of ragged string. What’s Transparent without a trans parent?

The answer floated by the finale is: a mess. And, very much relatedly, a musical. Soloway’s sister, Faith, staged a one-night showcase in 2017 titled “Faith Soloway and Friends: Should Transparent Become a Musical?” with Broadway-trained actors taking the roles of several Pfeffermans. Using a number of those songs, and some written specifically for the finale, the Soloways have put together a musical episode about Maura’s death, sort of. Given that the episode is also, inevitably, about Tambor’s exit, the show can’t bring itself to be quite as distressed about Maura’s death as its characters would be. So the episode is crammed with songs about other things, performed by noncentral performers, leaving the Pfefferman children, the series’ extant protagonists, with nothing much to do but warble gamely, though not well. The musical is a gung-ho effort to end on a high note that is at odds with both the subject at hand (death) and the series’ chatty, actorly, emotionally incisive strengths—at odds, in other words, with the reasons Transparent was good enough to transform the culture in the first place.

The Pfefferman children—Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ally (Gaby Hoffmann), now nonbinary and going by the name Ari—have always been phenomenal talkers. Volatile need monsters who can only be safely interacted with through a protective screen, they unload their unruly feelings and abundant sexual energy on basically everyone with feverish, realistic linguistic verve. Highly emotional and narcissistic, with the same relationship to boundaries that kids learning to play soccer have to orange pylons—knock ’em over!—their verbal too-muchness, the never-any-small-talk mania with which they carry out their existence is so much of their charm. But the musical reduces them to non-native speakers.

It’s not a knock on Landecker, Duplass, and Hoffmann, who enthusiastically do their best, to observe that they are not trained in musical theater. In various interviews, Soloway described the musical as being particularly suited to larger, different emotions. Theoretically, sure, but in practice, there are technical limitations, thin voices, gawky movements. When the siblings talk, they are the Pfeffermans. When they sing, they are constrained. Their foreshortened emotional register, plus a bunch of songs that seem written not precisely for the occasion, made me miss them even as I was watching them. They’re bit players in a movie in which they ostensibly star.

You can get a sense of what Soloway was hoping for when Judith Light, who plays their mother, Shelly and is trained in musical theater, starts to sing. Light, who magically performed Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” at the end of Season 3, has stealthily taken over the show, going from a brittle and cartoonish nag to the most fascinating need monster of all. She decides to cope with her grief by staging a musical based on her own life, casting doppelgängers for her children, played by the Broadway ringers who appeared in Faith Soloway’s showcase. These doubles, as well as the woman who plays Maura and also Ari’s weed dealer (Shakina Nayfack, fantastic), do some of the singing the original Pfefferman children can’t do, particularly in Shelly’s cri de coeur, “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” in which she sings, among other things, about how she would put her grown children back in her womb if only she could.

“Your Boundary Is My Trigger” is probably the finale’s high-point. It sounds good and the number, sly and funny, engages with and teases wokeness in a way that Soloway avoids in public comments. Even so, I’m not convinced music is more articulate than the Pfeffermans’ operatic bickering, which takes less time but packs in more material. Shelly’s song is, well, triggered by Sarah’s fury at her mother’s lack of boundaries, but the song is too centered on Shelly’s POV to acknowledge that Sarah’s own boundaries are, like her mother’s, laughably porous. The inappropriate apple has not fallen far from the tree. Another number, featuring Kathryn Hahn, returning as Josh’s poor soul mate Rabbi Raquel—dayenu—is solid but seems to exist because of Hahn’s relatively strong theatrical abilities, more than being the thing that needs saying with T-minus 60 minutes left in Transparent forever.

The episode climaxes at Maura’s shiva, which is intermittently moving and then finally battier than Dracula’s lair on Halloween. As the Pfefferman children hide out in the basement, Shelly says to them, “You know what I think sometimes is we need an equal and opposite reaction to the Holocaust. Not to forget it but to get over the Holocaust.” What could that possibly be? “Six million people feeling joy at the same time,” Ari floats. “For 12 years straight,” Josh adds. About 20 minutes later, they take a stab at it, when the entire cast, numerous extras, and even some famous people—Tig Notaro for one—don MGM-bright musical suits and begin to sing “Joyocaust.” A sample of the lyrics: “We need a Joyocaust/ For all the lives we’ve lost/ There’s pain in all of us, it remains at quite a cost/ Six million ain’t no joke/ we win for losing folk/ need a celebration of the soul/ for this extermination Super Bowl.”

Though Soloway has suggested the Transparent musical could become the Rocky Horror Picture Show of Jewish Community Centers across America, I am skeptical! Maura herself might find it a smidge grandiose to entangle a celebration of her life—and what is really the celebration of a TV show that, sure, was heretofore very good—with some kind of preliminary make do for the Holocaust. But, who knows, JCC programmers are, like most Jews, known for being lighthearted about the Shoah. As I watched, I wondered how anyone could swing this hard, with this much good will, at this particular moment, at a concept as banal as a Joyocaust. It’s so goofy Hallmark would be embarrassed, so New Age–y it could be a Marianne Williamson campaign slogan. And yet, Soloway is just aware enough of the silliness, the hubris —“Fuck yeah, we’ve crossed the line!”—that I, giggling and gobsmacked, was taken by all the energy and effort devoted to this lousy idea. In the final moments of Transparent, as Maura’s ashes fly out of an urn in a rainbow of basic special effects, like LBGTQ fairy dust or an accident at the glitter counter, the show commits to its message. Imperfect and flawed as we all are, the only thing to do is live completely as ourselves