‘Transparent’ Review: The Series Finale Is Characteristically Chaotic

In trading dialogue for lyrics, ‘Transparent’ both profits and loses. Our take:
Transparent Finale
By  · Published on October 3rd, 2019

Musicals are all about the friction between artifice and reality; that is their foundation. What genre would be a more logical fit for a show like Transparent to bow out with, then, than a musical? Across four seasons, creator Jill Soloway’s ground-breaking comedy-drama series – which is ending following allegations of sexual assault against its leading actor Jeffrey Tambor from two cast and crew members – has similarly busied itself with exploring what it means to perform identities within gender, class, religion, sexuality, and to a lesser extent, race. The show’s themes seem to be in natural harmony with the musical form; the transition a perfectly fitting choice.

But for all those well-reasoned parallels, something precious feels lost in the show’s segue into out-and-out theatricality. The true-to-life rough, uncomfortable edges that once endeared us to the show’s narcissistic clan of characters and made their zigzagging arcs so compelling feel a little too buffed here. What tension that does exist feels forced, and most resolutions come off similarly stilted. 100 minutes to deal with the death of a leading character (Maura Pfefferman dies off-screen at the very beginning of the episode) inevitably means there will be a few casualties to narrative concision, but some feel less like necessary sacrifices than the result of outright neglect. Precious last chances to spend time with the hysterical neuroticisms of beloved characters like Sarah (Amy Landecker; always the most enjoyable of the chaotic Pfeffermans to watch) are frittered away on the impulse to go big with musical gags and massive set-pieces.

And even these are hit-and-miss: some of Faith Soloway‘s lyrics (“Your Boundary is My Trigger”) feel like sharp slippage into the kind of cynical buzzword-slinging Transparent has always been above, while others actually inhibit the expression of raw grief in ways that Transparent’s usual style of confessional dialogue and unguarded performance never did.

These are strange criticisms to be making of Transparent, which always shone when at its messiest, was invariably generous with its characters, and never shrunk away from sitting with tricky conversations (to paraphrase one of the sublime Kathryn Hahn‘s lines). But to be fair to Soloway and co, finales are never easy — expectations are high, and writers have to serve two borderline contradictory masters: familiarity and finality. For Transparent’s writers in particular, attending to the practical science of loose end-tying is especially hard, considering the show has always felt so free-spirited and fluid, narratively and emotionally speaking. And while putting an end to the Pfeffermans’ story might never have felt right, even a finale as muddled as this one is far superior than the alternative: allowing one of the first TV shows to center a transgender character (not to mention one of the most trans-inclusive employers in Hollywood) to die with a whimper because of Tambor.

And weirdly, even if what Transparent loses in the transition to musical outweighs that which it gains, the format of “Musicale Finale” helps let it somewhat off the hook for those lapses. Musicals are self-aware beings, bleeding and blurring non-diegetic elements into every performance; every song explicitly drawing our attention to the out-of-frame orchestra, every dancer orienting themselves around the camera acting like a little tap on the fourth wall. We’re never more than one musical number away from being reminded of the filmmaking apparatus, and so the parameters of the viewing experience are widened, as they are in cinema verité. In “Musicale Finale”, that ever-present reminder of the real off-camera world naturally invokes viewers’ awareness of the show’s behind-the-scenes troubles and tacitly encourages recognition of what it must have taken to pull together for this. So if it seems like Transparent‘s attention has slipped elsewhere, the episode’s near-constant appeal to the bigger picture helps explain why — and in doing so, gently invites our compassion.

For all it takes away, then, what the episode’s musical element does supply is a sense of self-reflexive acknowledgement and cathartic justice: this is a finale that knows it’s a finale, and, in its own surreal way, it’s determined to go out righting its central contradiction. In a tricky fantasy turn, “Musicale Finale” gives Maura posthumous lines to speak, but this time – finally – they’re being spoken by a transgender actress: Shakina Nayfack. As part of her grieving process, Shelly (Judith Light) opts to write a play about the Pfeffermans, and to that end she casts Ava (Nayfack) as Maura’s proxy. Separating Tambor from his role is crucial to this episode’s success, given how psychologically awkward it would be to ask viewers to mourn his Maura, and to its credit, “Musicale Finale” pulls off this formidable task. Nayfack’s musical introduction as Maura is so transcendent a moment as to blot out all memory of Tambor in the role, making it one of the episode’s chief triumphs.

Nayfack’s debut as Maura is one of the few musical moments here that truly work, there being only two other songs that really warrant the episode’s swapping of dialogue for lyrics. The first of those is a refrain sung by Gaby Hoffmann’s character (who now identifies as non-binary and goes by Ari) and is based on a Torah portion, which Faith Soloway has alchemically retooled into a gently self-soothing mantra. It’s beautifully therapeutic and cathartic for Ari, who has struggled through the fits and starts of a quarter-life crisis since Transparent’s pilot, and is one of the episode’s rare moments of genuine, organic character closure.

Similarly outstanding is the musical tribute Davina (Alexandra Billings) and a transgender youth choir give at Maura’s funeral: it’s the episode’s only diegetic (in-scene) number, and so the emotion is high and very palpable. Hoffmann’s tearful reaction seems more like the real thing than an act, just as Billings, who has long been one of the show’s casting coups, offers a healing, fourth wall-breaking channel of emotion in her powerhouse performance.

For its final song, Transparent lurches in the opposite direction. You can see what the Soloways are going for with “Joyocaust”, an eye-wateringly left-field ensemble number that marries several of the show’s signature beats – Jewishness, trauma, memory, taking delight in flippancy – and has such an air of cathartic relief it feels like we’re watching footage of the show’s wrap party. The scene is a wild swing between outrageous, ill-timed presumptuousness and raucous Mel Brooks-ian mischief – “Fuck yeah, we’re crossin’ the line!” – and it’s likely viewer verdicts will similarly vary.

But all its questionable lyrical choices can’t undo Transparent‘s legacy: it remains a trailblazer, one of the first TV shows to radically and substantively champion transgender causes on and off-screen. If it indulges itself a little too much, that’s mitigated, at least in part, by the fact that the show has strived to extend that love – humanistic, infectious – to all of its characters, building an empathetic village out of Los Angeleno narcissists, and to its viewers, too.

And in any case, final words tend not to linger long in the memory. Perhaps that’s a blessing for Transparent; though the cultural imprint it leaves will undoubtedly be similarly complicated, the show’s legacy won’t be defined by this mixed bag.

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.