After Maura’s death, the rest of the Pfefferman clan deal with her passing.
In the age of “Peak TV”, it’s not uncommon for a show once heralded as important to fade into irrelevance after only a few seasons. Such is the fate of Amazon’s Transparent, which debuted in 2014 to intense (and deserved) fanfare. Created by Jill Soloway, inspired by their own family, it became the first streaming show to win a “Best Series” Golden Globe. Jeffrey Tambor starred as Maura Pfefferman whose coming out as trans kicked off the series. The show was groundbreaking, not only for its protagonist and the journeys it depicted but with Soloway’s commitment to creating a safe and inclusive set, hiring trans people in front of and behind the camera.
The second series expanded more into the lives of other members of the Pfefferman clan. It looked more into queer issues, expanded its cast, because more unashamedly Jewish (I can’t think of a show that represents and interrogates Jewish tradition better than Transparent). Two more seasons found the characters spiraling apart, then together again on a family trip to Israel; two seasons that felt the show exploring more interesting questions while its structure became increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfying, and audience enthusiasm petered out.
In 2017, Tambor was accused of sexual harassment by a cast member, and the show’s future was placed in jeopardy. Tambor quit. Not only was Maura Pfefferman, the glue that held the family together, gone, but the narrative of the Transparent set as a safe workplace was called into question. For a show that debuted to controversy (the casting of Tambor, a cis actor, as a trans character) it seemed as if its reckoning had finally arrived.
But against the odds, Transparent returns in the form of a feature-length “Musicale Finale”. Coming two years after several sprawling, messy seasons, the finale seems like a tall order; it needs to wrap up each character’s story satisfyingly, find a way to write out TV’s first transgender protagonist, and also be a musical?
Maura is promptly written off the show (besides the “previously on” segment, Tambor does not appear at all). Her death brings the other members of the Pfefferman family to come together, and the plot mostly follows how they deal with previous traumas in light of this sudden event, loosely structured around the funeral preparations. The three Pfefferman children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ari (formerly Ali, played by Gaby Hoffman) come together to mourn, wrestle with surprises in Maura’s will, and attempt to convince Rabbi Raquel (the wonderful Kathryn Hahn) to officiate the memorial service. Along the way each deals with their own emotional problems — Sarah’s disinterest with her life, Josh’s acceptance that he is a sex and love addict. Ari, who gets the most to do, feels that their increasing attachment to Judaism is held back by the fact that their bat mitzvah was canceled.
But the heart of the finale belongs to Maura’s ex-wife, Shelly. Her way of coping with grief is to put on a musical, casting actors to fill in the other member’s of the Pfefferman family, and having them re-enact memorable moments of family history. The staging of events we have already seen suggests the effect of dramatization of trauma — a not infrequent occurrence in Jewish life — that takes us to new dimensions upon consideration that the show itself is based upon Soloway’s family (co-written by Jill Soloway’s sister, Faith). These moments tackle how Jewish experience is rooted in trauma, and the Transparent Musicale Finale attempts to uproot that.
Oh, and yes, this is a musical. The songs are fluid and dynamic. For a show that is often about family members hiding emotions, music helps bring them to the surface. When the characters burst into song, it feels natural, which speaks to the air of theatricality that Transparent has always possessed. The first “Sepulveda Boulevard” kicks off the episode, showing us where each character is, before Maura’s death is revealed. Some are more comic (“Goddamn House”), while others are showy and sexy (Kathryn Hahn’s breakout number “Sit In It”). A few are more quiet and contemplative (“Father’s House”, my personal favorite). The final number is by equal measures brilliant and awful, colorful and joyous, with darkly funny lyrics — it shouldn’t work, but it does.
The rest of the Transparent Musicale Finale works on that tenet. It’s brilliant, but also messy. Things are unresolved, brushed aside, but there are enough satisfying, well-earned moments, that you don’t mind the parts that feel are lackluster. Transparent ends much the way it started. Unashamedly queer, Jewish, and now joyous.