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That Song You Hear Is the Dream of a Radical New Era of TV Dying

‘Transparent’ broke new ground and became a critically lauded force. But then it flattened, and faltered in the face of controversy. Now it bows out … with a musical.  

Amazon/Ringer illustration

This is how the dream of a radical new era of television ends: not with a bang, but an over-the-top song-and-dance number called “Joyocaust.” When attempting to explain Transparent Musicale Finale—the delayed, feature-length conclusion to Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking, award-winning tale of gender and Judaism in modern-day Los Angeles—one feels compelled to begin at the close. You could try to sum up Transparent’s audacious, wildly uneven, alternately meta and oblivious encore with words, and I will. But first, it’s best to let the show explain itself: “Take the concentration out of the camps / Concentrate it on some song and dance!” the characters sing. Then, moments later: “Hell yes, we’ve crossed the line!” Indeed they have.

It’s been almost exactly two years since we last encountered the Pfeffermans, the affluent Semitic clan who grew up in the Pacific Palisades before embarking on their own mini-diaspora across the Thirty-Mile Zone. In a strictly creative sense, the show was already showing signs of fatigue before its hiatus. The three Pfefferman siblings, initially brought together by the late-in-life gender transition of one of their parents, succumbed to entropy and drifted apart once more; subsequent subplots were both repetitive and diffuse. By Season 4, I speculated that Soloway could claim the prerogative of 2010s prestige TV, as The Good Place currently is, and wrap up the story on its own terms. Running out of creative steam is normal; there was no need to let the understandable flagging of Transparent’s later seasons overshadow the innovation of its early ones.

Just a month and a half later, the pressure on Transparent became as much external as internal, and as much ethical as artistic. In the wave of sexual harassment and assault stories about powerful men that followed The New York Times’ exposé of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Tambor—who played Maura, the eponymous trans parent, a role for which he won multiple Emmys as well as a Golden Globe—faced accusations from his former personal assistant Van Barnes as well as costar Trace Lysette. Transparent had long faced scrutiny for casting a cisgender actor as a transgender woman, even as the show made history for hiring trans collaborators in supporting and creative roles. (In the words of Slate critic Willa Paskin, “Transparent made the world too woke for Transparent.”) Tambor’s alleged abuse of power against members of the very marginalized group Transparent claimed to represent presented nothing less than an existential crisis.

Nor did Soloway do themselves many favors with their public response. (Soloway came out as nonbinary in their 2018 memoir She Wants It and uses “they” and “them” pronouns.) Last fall, the critic Andrea Long Chu penned a viral evisceration of She Wants It that both crystallized and accelerated the turn of public opinion against Soloway, at least among the culturally literate coastal urbanites Transparent counts as its core constituency. “If She Wants It has any purpose, it is to exculpate its author in the matter of Jeffrey Tambor,” Chu wrote. To do so, Soloway recounted their own reprehensible request for Lysette not to go public with her story. “In Middle America when people think of trans people there’s still so much suspicion, and Maura became this beautiful symbol of transness and now you’re laying this imagery out there of her being a predator,” Soloway argued. “I’m the victim and you’re crying?” Lysette replied.

As Soloway’s own conflation of Maura with Tambor implies, Transparent has always encouraged the elision of its characters and its creator, its fictional narrative and its real-world resonance. The premise is taken from Soloway’s personal experience grappling with their own parent’s transition; Soloway dated the poet Eileen Myles, and on-screen surrogate Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) dated an older professor played by Cherry Jones; Soloway tweaked their conception of gender and so did Ali, who in the Musicale Finale now goes by Ari. Soloway has always been prone to the combination of vulnerable honesty and reckless disregard for the downsides of personal disclosure that led to including the unflattering Lysette exchange in She Wants It. Relatedly, they’ve also been given to sweeping rhetoric that verges on the grandiose, deeming their own work a “revolution” by way of thanking plutocrat Jeff Bezos for their Emmy.

Such statements were initially justified, or at least mitigated, by Transparent’s quality. Canceled after just a season, Soloway’s follow-up, I Love Dick, was less universally lauded, but had its devotees among critics, including this one. And the self-seriousness of Transparent’s politics was always belied by the razor-sharp humor directed at its protagonists. Transparent has long been its own best parody, a compliment that’s curdled into an unpleasant truth. But Soloway’s intentional muddling of fact and fiction has now backfired. Animosity and skepticism toward them naturally spills over onto their creative output, and a declining estimation of that output naturally extends towards the dream of television as a tool for dismantling the patriarchy Soloway made Transparent a symbol of. They even named their production company after it.

By design, then, it’s difficult to separate Transparent from the extra-textual controversies that surround it. Either way, Musicale Finale is clearly a mess. As was previously announced this spring, Transparent’s solution to its Tambor problem was to kill the character he portrayed, turning the finale into an extended act of mourning for Maura and a reflection on her legacy. Clumsy though its origins may be, such a tight focus is ironically a significant improvement on the scattered, aimless fourth season. Transparent began with a second birth of sorts for Maura as she introduced her children, and the rest of the world, to her true self. Her death, whatever its motivations, reads like a fitting end to the show, definitively tying off the personal journey that’s always been the show’s core. Tambor’s absence may be conspicuous, but the finale successfully centers the character, complex and flawed in her own right, without involving the actor.

A more obvious misstep, though one that’s necessary to spend some time on, is the stylistic choice to make Transparent’s last act a musical. (Soloway has described it as a Jewish version of Free to Be … You and Me, though a closer comparison might be the other highly Hebraic musical show that ended earlier this year.) Even if the original numbers were flawlessly executed, there’s a structural contradiction that’s almost impossible to surmount: the staged, artificial nature of musical theater is fundamentally at odds with the handheld, cross-talking naturalism Soloway carried over from their background in independent film. When the actual soundtrack includes such showstoppers as “Your Boundary Is My Trigger,” belted by a heroic Judith Light, there’s no aesthetic argument to be made for cringeworthy attempts at setting therapy sessions to song. The lyrics—“You need to sit in it,” regarding grief; “Crazy people like you pick crazy people like me,” on dysfunctional relationships—lack the emotional nuance of the acting and dialogue, which were key to pulling off Transparent’s balance of obnoxious behavior and authentic emotion. One moment, the Pfefferman kids are silently piling on top of one another in Maura’s bed, a wordless expression of the kind of suffocating intimacy Transparent depicted so well. The next, Light’s Shelly introduces an Uber driver who just so happens to be an Orthodox pianist who can accompany their next number.

The best way to appreciate Musicale Finale is to admire its chutzpah, for good (putting Kathryn Hahn’s foxy rabbi in hot pants) and for ill (casting Difficult People’s Shakina Nayfack as a Maura stand-in/Manic Pixie Dream Trans Woman to help the Pfeffermans work out their feelings). Whatever else it may be, Transparent’s last hurrah is certainly an excuse to divert some of Amazon’s questionably acquired millions toward a Brady Bunch–style soundstage of the Pfefferman homestead. Musicale Finale nonetheless marks the point where the self-indulgence of Transparent’s characters and the self-indulgence of Transparent itself becomes indistinguishable.

The idea of inherited trauma has been woven into Transparent’s fabric since Season 2, when then-Ali, now-Ari’s interest in family lore led them to uncover the story of Maura’s trans aunt Gittel, who died in the Holocaust. But where the concept was once a resonant expression of the Pfeffermans’ intergenerational anxiety, world-historic genocide has never felt less connected to, or more galling as an excuse for, the neuroses of these privileged Angelenos. When Sarah’s (Amy Landecker) children abruptly ask her about ovens, it feels forced; when Maura’s funeral turns into a Technicolor singalong about concentration camps, it feels the wrong kind of shocking. Not for the first time, but definitely the last, the possibility will cross your mind that these people are so obsessed with their ancestors’ oppression because they’ve experienced so little of their own. It’s a sour note to go out on, but then again, it’s the one Transparent chose for itself.