'Transparent: Musicale Finale': TV Review

Danielle Levitt/Amazon
For die-hard fans only.
9/27/2019

In this musical movie epilogue, Jill Soloway's Amazon series addresses Jeffrey Tambor's departure by seeing the Pfeffermans grieve over the death of their trans matriarch.

Transparent has been one of the most ambitious triumphs of TV's streaming era. A groundbreaking half-hour dramedy that centers on trans, nonbinary and pansexual characters (although few trans actors), the Amazon series debuted in 2014, at a time when trans visibility was only just reaching mainstream consciousness.

Starring Emmy-winner Jeffrey Tambor as a trans septuagenarian woman coming out after decades of dysphoria, the series — inspired by the late-in-life rebirth of creator Jill Soloway's "Moppa" — expertly wrenches emotion from the very bougie intemperance it satirizes. Among the subjects Transparent has mined for laughs, tears or titillation: Jewish spirituality (and neuroses,; L.A. privilege, ethnical non-monogamy, identity politics, female sexuality, navel-gazing academia, inherited trauma and childhood sexual abuse.

It was a #MeToo show before #MeToo existed. Which is exactly why Tambor's departure after four seasons was so painful for the cast, crew and fans. He was fired in 2018 for sexual misconduct reported by on-set colleagues and thus does not appear in Transparent: Musicale Finale, the messy, gimmicky and occasionally moving epilogue to Soloway's magnum opus. Tambor's Maura, a Queen Lear reigning over three dysfunctional adult children, was the heart of the series, and I missed her gentle presence in this 100-minute effort. But her absence is the point: In the finale, Maura is dead of a heart attack and her children, ex-wife and close friends come together to wring the grief from their bodies.

After Maura's nurturing bestie Davina (Alexandra Billings) discovers her offscreen remains, the Pfeffermans converge in the Pacific Palisades for a Jewish funeral extravaganza. (For a show about entitled L.A. flibbertigibbets — do any of these people work?? — Transparent is also faithfully devoted to depicting Judaism like no other show on TV. Not "Jewishness," but Judaism.) The plot keeps the family stuck in neutral from last we saw them in the season four finale following their 10-episode journey to the Holy Land. There's just little time here to develop satisfying conclusions to their narrative arcs, so we're instead left with abrupt little happily-ever-after crumbs.

Dilettante Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), now going by Ari to recognize gender nonconforming identity, arrives from Israel with newly hatched ambitions of becoming a rabbi. Jay Duplass' manipulative Josh (or "Joshy," as his mother so cloyingly coos) is in sexual addiction recovery, still healing from the wounds of an underage "relationship" he had with his adult babysitter. Hedonist Sarah (Amy Landecker) has reluctantly accepted heteromonogamy with her bloodless husband, Len (Rob Huebel). And their histrionic mother Shelly (Judith Light) has embraced life as an amateur actor. (One major finale plot strand revolves around her bombastic attempt to relieve grief by writing a musical about her family. How meta.)

The conceit of Maura's death would have made a poignant denouement, but the musical element completely frustrates the storytelling. To preface, I love musicals and musical episodes (my ability to sing every lyric to Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Once More With Feeling" proves this). But musical episodes work best mid-season so they can break up the monotony of traditional longform narrative. Here, the pleasant but unmemorable tracks from songwriter and Transparent producer Faith Soloway (Jill's sibling) serve less to move the story forward than to distract the viewer from the emotions we should be feeling as we mourn for both Maura and for the hurt of Tambor's reputed actions. The songs range from jazz to klezmer to piano ballads and more.

The finale begins on "Sepulveda Blvd.," a disaffected pop-rock tune from bored Westside housewife Sarah as she chauffeurs her children along an apparently endless stretch of road right before getting the call that her parent has died. And it ends on "Joyocaust" (yep), a fizzy but incongruous call for jubilation in the face of… genocide? Grief? General ethnic anxiety? I found myself groaning every time a new song began to brew, wishing I could just be allowed to focus on the characters instead of grandiose musical sequences.

The most uncomfortable of these is an eye-popping cabaret number performed by Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn, wasted), who unsuccessfully tries to maintain a healthy distance from the destructive Pfeffermans. The most effective one, on the other hand, is Shelly's showstopper "Your Boundary Is My Trigger," a batshit but relatable burlesque where Light writhes onstage railing against her children's emotional withholding and wailing about how "If I could, I would shove you back inside me." It's the only song that fosters character growth, and yet somehow also includes the lyrics, "As you stretch out my vagina, my boundaries stretching wider!" (The title is the sort of over-the-top bon mot that nevertheless sears into your brain; I may or may not have used it to describe a recent tiff with a close relative.)

A self-indulgent experiment egregious even for the most self-indulgent characters on television, Musicale Finale feels hastily composed, a tacked-on coda from a visionary who has already moved onto brighter horizons, such as the underrated I Love Dick. Truthfully, few of the actors seem prepared for their big numbers (Duplass looks like he's about to burst into laughter in his musical scenes — but I probably would, too, if something like this were thrust upon me).

Thus, it's up to professional singer Billings to imbue the soundtrack with gravitas. She's joined by NYC performer Shakina Nayfack as Ava, an adorable and self-actualized weed dealer/singer who acts as a spiritual stand-in for Maura throughout the movie. Nayfack may be best known for playing Difficult People's waspish blonde "trans truther" waitress Lola. But here, she's all nourishing earth mother, the shining beacon of an overcrowded story.

Ultimately, the Soloways have just lovingly crammed too much in here: a cringey Brady Bunch parody, Shelly's musical-within-a-musical, a deus-ex-Bar Mitzvah, an unearned romantic reunion and a full-on spiritual resolution to Jewish diaspora and genocide. (In the funniest line of the finale, Sarah must explain to her confused children the difference between Maura's final resting place and Hitler's Final Solution: “Cremation is not the Holocaust. It’s a completely different oven.”) The show has always been invested in dissecting performativity, but perhaps a musical is just too literal an interpretation.

Cast: Gaby Hoffmann, Judith Light, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Alexandra Billings, Shakina Nayfack, Rob Huebel, Kathryn Hahn
Director: Jill Soloway
Music & lyrics: Faith Soloway
Premieres: Friday, Sept. 27 (Amazon Prime Video)