Maura’s dead. Those are the words that inevitably begin the Transparent Musicale Finale, a feature-length send-off to a programme that faces the difficult task of wrapping its legacy up without its main character. Played by Jeffrey Tambor, Maura’s journey of discovery as she came out to the Pfefferman clan as a woman was a groundbreaking, moving, vital piece of television, one that helped bring conversations of gender, identity and sexuality out from the unspoken margins and into mainstream culture.
Tambor’s dismissal from the show for sexual misconduct left it in the necessary but awkward spot of writing Maura out of the story. Fortunately, though, Transparent has blossomed and widened its scope over four seasons to examine Jewish faith and identity as well as gender. It has become a study in how one person’s emotional and existential journey can impact other people’s own understanding of who they are. So, in a way, it’s only natural that the final ever outing for the Pfeffermans should see them questioning themselves and their futures afresh.
An impeccably cast and performed ensemble piece, part of the show’s strength lies in the unique way that each character responds to Maura’s departure. Gaby Hoffman’s Ari, gender non-conforming and confident with it, wonders why she doesn’t feel at home when she goes back there; sex addict Josh (Jay Duplass) instinctively looks for the support of the familiar; Sarah (Amy Landecker) questions what this loss means for the house as well as her relationship with her mum; and Shelly (Judith Light), Maura’s aptly scene-stealing wife, wonders how to make it all about her.
They’re all terrible, selfish people, and Transparent fans will long have made peace with that, as the show instead earns sympathy through its heartfelt dismantling of affectations and possessions to expose unasked questions – particularly ones not discussed in highly affluent, highly religious circles. Light’s Shelly has consistently been one of the worst people on show, from her neurotic need for attention to her not-unrelated passion for song and dance numbers. It’s entirely in keeping with her character, then, that she should start processing her grief by putting on a musical theatre version of her life, casting randomers in the roles of her family.
What isn’t in keeping with the show, though, is the decision for everyone to be singing and dancing too. While Jill Soloway’s show has often had a heightened quality to its melodrama, and actively looks to spring from the saddest emotions to bursts of positivity, it’s not a musical – the only moments to come close so far have been Shelley’s musical stint to close Season 3 and the recurring use of Jesus Christ Superstar in Season 4. To suddenly move from that to a full-blown string of musicals is oddly in keeping with Transparent’s identity: it’s ambitious, bold, memorable and produces some truly masterful bits of TV. But that doesn’t mean it’s a success: it also brings an uneven sense of tone, an inconsistent level of quality and a frustrating lack of conventional screentime to explore the climax of characters’ arcs.
Showrunner Jill Soloway brought in sister Faith Soloway to pen the songs, and while there’s some fun in saying the range of genres they want to pay tribute to, that array only adds to the haphazard feel. Light’s Shelly gets some of the best sequences, particularly when we’re watching her cast and the actual characters join together for an inevitable medley of duets. But even she isn’t immune to the script’s uneven nature: Your Boundary is My Trigger, sung by her and Sarah, seems more concerned with its timely title than any logical sense behind its lyrics.
Hoffman shines in Run From Your Father’s House, which weaves her spirituality and grief together in a way that’s more in keeping with Transparent’s ability to gently touch moments of profound reflection. Duplass, on other hand, gets a romantic number to share with Rabbi Raquel (the thankfully returning Kathryn Hahn) that is nicely conceived but poorly executed, as the choreography creates something more laughably awkward than swooningly sincere – one if several scenes that epitomise the sometimes jarring juxtaposition between showtime spectacle and Transparent’s mumblecore heritage. Hahn, who has often been the best thing in an excellent ensemble, conveys more in a single hug with Josh than she does in her signature song and dance routine, which reaches for Bob Fossean raunch and – through no fault of Hahn’s – leaves you wishing they hadn’t.
That kind of clash tends to distract from rather than deepen the inner turmoil that’s being dragged to the surface; you long for more of the finely written dialogue between these beautifully, humanistically draw characters (one discussion of Hitler is superbly observed) in place of their toe-tapping routines. A brief cameo from Bradley Whitford and Alia Shawkat, for example, only reminds you how much more is there that could be grappled with. That sometimes underwhelming, sometimes jaw-dropping experience epitomised by the climactic set piece, which boasts of how it’s crossed the line of political correctness, but despite its enthusiasm and clear love for the communities its representing, leaves you gazing at the floor instead of looking at the sky. A missed opportunity, but after years of pushing boundaries and sparking important conversations, a well earned one.
The Transparent Musicale Finale is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.