Then again, who would expect anything but horrifying honesty from a Pfefferman? The pathbreaking Amazon original series has been battered by scandal and missteps, and its movie-length finale ditches its onetime star and morphs from mumblecore dramedy to an entirely more bombastic genre. But Transparent’s essence remains intact: It’s about saying the unsayable and trying to be whole in the aftermath. When the well-off professor and granddad Mort came out as the trans woman Maura, she broke with a lifetime of shame and with centuries of taboo. Maura’s children felt spurred to rethink their own sexualities, genders, relationships, and worldviews. Everything solid in the show has been under review. Yet family stays family.
In real life, the show’s credibility has been under review, too. Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of Maura earned wild accolades as he spoke out for LGBTQ causes. Behind the scenes, though, he allegedly belittled and harassed trans colleagues, according to his former assistant Van Barnes and the actor Trace Lysette. He denied the allegations and was dropped from the show, but the way that Jill Soloway (who is gender-nonconforming) spoke of the situation made it seem as though the showrunner cared more about optics than about justice. Soloway’s 2018 memoir is arguably best known for a viral pan of it by Andrea Long Chu, who suggested that Soloway sees “trans people as creative oil to be fracked.”
Any other show faced with a scandal so existentially troubling—suspicion that its overtly political essence masked hypocrisy—might have just called it quits then. But Transparent has always been about surviving cataclysms and leaning into change. “Musicale Finale” makes a bighearted attempt along those lines, if not an entirely successful one. Songs written by Soloway’s sister Faith pleasantly sing-rather-than-show a series of final transformations for the characters. The lyrics get so hyperbolic as to seem trolling, but there’s just not much drama. Fine actors who once expressed complex emotions in charmingly messy cross talk now spend too much time shouting out slogans as if they were Elsa of Arendelle.
The ideas powering the show remain interesting, though, and one of the biggest ideas is about Judaism. Maura dies offscreen very early in the episode, and for the rest of the hour and a half, her loved ones—her ex-wife, Shelly; her kids, Ari, Sarah, and Josh (Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass); and her friend Davina (Alexandra Billings)—move through their faith’s mourning rituals. Each stage is complicated, however, by this family’s unconventional demands. Maura, it turns out, asked to be cremated, violating Jewish customs. Ari, once named Ali, wants to perform the funeral service and dreams of becoming a rabbi, but will need a pan-gender bart mitzvah first. As the Pfeffermans sit shiva, they encounter exes who, at various points in the series, suffered from the main characters’ selfishness.