Transparent didn’t ask to end at this time, or under these conditions: four seasons into a groundbreaking run, with a standalone movie that feels more like a glorified epilogue and unfolds minus its main character, Maura Pfefferman, a onetime patriarch who had transitioned to become a woman. The show’s two-time Emmy-winning star, Jeffrey Tambor, was pushed out in 2017 after being accused of sexually harassing two of his trans co-workers, an extra-dramatic development that cast a pall over the story (as well as that of another family saga featuring Tambor, Arrested Development). That Transparent had just finished its most ambitious and fully realized season — a ten-episode, time-tripping, theologically- and politically-infused account of the Pfeffermans’ trip to Israel — only amplified the sense of cosmic unfairness. It’s painful whenever a show calls it quits, by its own volition or the network’s, but there’s something uniquely painful about seeing a great one go out at the peak of its creative power, and against its will. But to paraphrase Al Swearengen — the main character of HBO’s Deadwood, another prematurely cut-short drama that wrapped things up this year with a movie — if you want to hear God laugh, tell him (or her) your plans.
In that spirit, series creator Jill Soloway, who co-wrote and directed the 100-minute “Musicale Finale,” makes do with what they’ve been given. The movie kills Maura off-camera via natural causes, then lets the aftermath unfold without once showing Tambor’s face — a nonverbal statement on the scandal that lands with gut-punch force, like cutting a disgraced family member’s face from photo albums. More strikingly — and quite Solowayian in its chutzpah — the script turns Transparent into a full-blown musical, complete with dance numbers. It’s a move that doubles down on the series’ already powerful Brechtian impulses, embedding a metafictional story-within-a-story that observes Maura’s ex, Shelly (Judith Light), as she directs a madcap and cathartic stage musical about her family, casting a substitute Maura in the form of a weed dealer with a mellifluous voice (cabaret star Shakina Nayfack, Soloway’s collaborator on the musical numbers).
Early reaction to the “Musicale Finale” has been mixed to negative. Some critics complained that the musical numbers introduced too drastic a change into the show’s carefully developed aesthetic, and that the film’s running time was too brief to do anything but check in with the other major characters — including Maura’s best friend, Davina (Alexandra Billings), and Shelly’s three kids: Ali, who now goes by Ari (Gaby Hoffman), Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Josh (Jay Duplass) — and offer them scraps of hope and closure. It’s definitely a bittersweet, sometimes frustrating, occasionally surreal experience. Shelly stages a Dr. Phil-meets-South Park number titled “Your Boundary Is My Trigger,” chastising her kids for denying access to their feelings. The main cast bands together for the climactic “Joyocaust,” a summation of the series’ thoughts on Judaism, genocide, survival, and hope that flirts with kitsch, then marries it. It is amazing in the best and worst way; they could’ve brought in Mel Brooks to introduce it.
But here’s the thing: Whatever one might think of the concept of this wrap-up film, or the relative success or failure of its musical numbers and non-musical scenes, its existence is the ultimate expression of everything Transparent has been about.
Beyond its cultural specifics, this is a series about people trying to be happy. Unfortunately, decisions made in the name of happiness tend to make others unhappy, especially when they upend the status quo and force people to question whatever they thought they knew. It doesn’t matter whether unhappy reactions seem logical or irrational from afar. People’s feelings are real even when they’re caused by misunderstandings, social conditioning, and fear. Being an adult means accepting that life is messy, unfair, and closure-proof, and that eventually everyone gets to spend time in the abyss.
Transparent gets it. The show is kicked off with a father coming out to his adult children, and eventually to the rest of society, as a lifelong cross-dresser, then deciding to transition biologically. Most of season one was built around the reactions of Ari, Josh, Sarah, and Shelly to Maura’s bombshell (the kids rechristened her Moppa, a nickname that stuck till she insisted on Maura). Josh handled the news the worst of Maura’s three children, but in time he came around. The show was always conscious of his (and other characters’) tangled psychological reasons for resisting change in other people, as well as the primordial realities of existence: Because we rarely get to choose our fates, self-determination comes down to figuring ourselves out as best we can, and making the best of whatever we’ve been given.
We saw this dynamic play out time and again, not just in Maura’s arc, but in the stories of the other characters. Ari identified as straight, then lesbian, then non-binary, and in season four, insisted that their family respect their less-than-reverent feelings about Israeli politics. Sarah kept leaving and returning to her husband, Len (Rob Heubel), variously identifying as lesbian, bisexual, and polyamorous, and pissing off Rob and her other partners — in particular her college flame, Tammy Cashman (Melora Walters), whom Sarah wooed away from a straight marriage, then jilted. Somehow every major character had to learn how to be genuinely okay with everyone else’s issues, their perpetual state of developmental flux, as well as the larger truth that, as Mel Brooks once put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” As in life, every character on Transparent is the star of the film unspooling in their mind. It takes a Herculean effort to get beyond their myopia and appreciate that other people are contradictory and infuriating and worthy of love, too. “I am a beautiful soul,” screams Tammy, drunkenly barging into Josh’s party after being jilted by Sarah and chucking their leftover wedding cake into the pool. “And you are all monsters!”
What bolder way to express all these complexities than by transforming the show itself?
This is the same Transparent, yet it isn’t. Its spirit is the same, but it looks and moves differently and (literally) has a different voice. It’s a work-in-progress arriving at the tail-end of the series’ run. It’s a musical movie made by people who haven’t made any other musical movies. They have the right idea, but there are necessarily some awkward steps and flat notes and songs that don’t quite land the way the series wants them to. It hasn’t figured everything out yet. But why should we expect it to? Transparent only just formally arrived at this new stage of its aesthetic evolution. “Musicale Finale” turns us all into the Pfefferman children, going over to dad’s house for the zillionth time and realizing the old nouns and pronouns no longer apply. It almost feels like a test, which reveals whether we truly absorbed what this show was about.
We queue up Transparent to discover that the role of Tambor has been effectively recast, and that we are just going to have to accept this new person as the same person, representing the same basic personality and the same virtues and flaws. True to the show, and to our own experience, we reencounter someone we knew and loved, only to find that their presentation and energy have changed. Do we reject them because they aren’t what we’d grown accustomed to?
The film’s stylistic gambits also draw out elements that floated under the surface during Transparent’s regular run. The effect on the viewer is similar to those silent, sepia-tinted flashbacks in Deadwood: The Movie that revisited important events in seasons one through three. Whenever we saw those flash-cuts, it was as if the town itself was suffering from PTSD. Taken together, they asserted that the town of Deadwood itself, not any single person, was always the main character: the phrase “body politic” was made tangible. The finale of Transparent doesn’t have any flashbacks, but the musical numbers play out in a similarly revelatory way, suggesting that perhaps it was always a musical, but for various reasons, it never went all the way there. From Ari and Josh trading Jim Croce lyrics in the pilot, to Josh spontaneously grabbing his guitar and performing at a roadside coffeeshop for his then-girlfriend Shea (Trace Lysette), to the entire family bonding in Israel (and back home in Los Angeles) by singing songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, Transparent’s musical moments always arrived when the characters felt at their happiest, their most ecstatically free. In a way, it’s as if the series always had a song in its heart.
More on Transparent
- Transparent Goes Out With One Last Crazy Dance
- In Praise of Transparent’s Shelly Pfefferman, the Underappreciated Jewish Mother
- Transparent’s Greatest Trans Legacy Is How Quickly It Grew Irrelevant