Review: ‘Transparent’ and Its Unsettling Technicolor Dream Theater


“Transparent,” when it arrived on Amazon in 2014, did what great TV does: It made the medium bigger.

Most obviously, it made room for more kinds of characters. The story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a senior citizen coming out to her adult children as transgender, it was one of the first series to signal the rapid cultural shift toward transgender visibility over the next five years. From there, the other Pfeffermans unpacked their own their sexual, spiritual and gender identities, as well as family baggage that stretched from present-day Los Angeles back to pre-Holocaust Germany.

But it also expanded TV’s ambitions. It was not Amazon’s first series, but it was its first artistic success, much like “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix. (“Orange” was also an early series to foreground a transgender character, and maybe it was not coincidence that it took a new format to reflect this new awareness.)

If “Orange” suggested streaming could produce a more expansive, broad-canvas kind of TV, “Transparent” suggested it could also create a more specific, intensely granular form of art. It was a big Jewish family argument of a show, passionate in its voice and striking in its grace. It was testament to life as a continuing education, a poem about the difficulty and the necessity of being honest with the world and one’s self.

The spirit of radical honesty requires that I say up front: The feature-length “Transparent Musicale Finale,” now on Amazon, is not nearly “Transparent” at its best. But it is definitely “Transparent” at its most.

The special begins with Maura’s death. This is no spoiler; it was how the creator, Jill Soloway, decided to write Tambor off the show after two colleagues accused him of sexual misconduct.

But Soloway (who identifies as nonbinary and prefers they/them pronouns), collaborating with their songwriter sister, Faith Soloway, also took the opportunity to put the series through one last transformation, into a secular-sacred songfest complete with therapy talk and dance numbers.

We might have seen this show-tune turn coming. The fourth and previous season, much of which took place in Israel, was suffused with references to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and Faith Soloway had staged a revue of “Transparent”-based tunes at Joe’s Pub. Beyond that, “Transparent” always had a ’70s-musical vibe (the pilot spotlights the “Free to Be … You and Me” soundtrack) and a willingness to shift from hyper-realism into fantasy.

The surface story of “Musicale Finale” is simple: Maura dies, and everyone has to deal with it. The pretty L.A.-rock opener, “Sepulveda Blvd,” catches us up with the siblings as they get the news. Sarah (Amy Landecker) is chauffeuring her kids and singing her frustrations. (“I’ll see what my options are / When I’m more than a mom in a car.”) Josh (Jay Duplass) is at a meeting for sex addiction. Ari (Gaby Hoffmann) — whom we previously knew as Ali but is now nonbinary — is flying home from Israel after a religious awakening.

Meanwhile, Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) is channeling her energy into producing a show-within-the-show about her life. Shelly’s journey has been the great surprise of “Transparent”: As she has asserted her right to be more than a supporting player to her self-dramatizing kids, she has evolved from being an almost comic-relief figure into an emotional center of the series. It is never too late, this show believes, to change and grow — remaking itself as a musical is arguably a meta-statement on just that.

For that very reason, Tambor’s ouster didn’t have to mean the end of the series. The Pfefferverse is a mutable thing, and “Transparent” had not been solely or even mostly Maura’s story since Season 1. Indeed, watching the finale, I kept imagining how certain arcs might have played out in a last full run of episodes.

But what we get feels and even looks, thanks to some jarring editing, like a rush job. Sarah and Josh’s stories in particular are foreshortened. An expanded role for Alexandra Billings, as Maura’s friend Davina, and the quick curtain calls of peripheral players (including Cherry Jones and Alia Shawkat) come across like nods toward stories that a full fifth season would have told.

Tambor’s ejection does allow “Transparent” to correct for having cast a cisgender man as its trans parent (something almost impossible to imagine in the age of “Pose”). Shelly casts a weed dealer (Shakina Nayfack) as Maura in her play, and in a sequence where Ari imagines speaking one last time to Maura, Nayfack fully embodies, in tone and manner, the character Tambor took four seasons to establish.

In moments like this, the finale is a moving goodbye. But it doesn’t become more than a collection of moments, some transporting, some throwaway. A slapstick song-and-dance about real estate (the disposal of the family house looms over the finale as it did the show’s beginning) leads directly into the soulful and melancholy “Father’s House.”

The musical framing — bold colors and blunt lyrics — hammers flat what had been elegantly shaded characters, even when the individual songs work. The lyrics can be playful, as when Kathryn Hahn’s Rabbi Raquel gets a sultry solo about “this specifically Jewish emotional form of A.D.H.D.” They can also be, in their labored conceits and rhymes, downright painful.

The musical’s closing number, “Joyocaust,” is both. It imagines “an equal and opposite reaction to the Holocaust” and culminates in a rainbow-costumed dance procession that includes Jesus in a hot-pink crown of thorns. It’s half a defiant l’chaim, half an outtake from “The Producers.” (“Take the concentration out of the camps / Concentrate it on some song and dance!”)

Oy gevalt! It’s a bananas piece, ill-considered and mortifying. But what it’s not, much as it may seem so on the page, is merely flippant.

On top of everything, “Transparent” has been a deep exploration of Judaism, secular, cultural, historical, political and religious. In its last act, it wants to move from self-criticism and atonement to a spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world. (It’s fitting that it arrives just in time for the High Holy Days.)

Its final image — a kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley overhead in which the core Pfeffermans are merely part of a vast ensemble — suggests a series whose perspective kept pulling out, out, outward until it was not just about a family but the world, not just about a moment but thousands of years of history. All of which is ambitious and weirdly moving. But it also suggests a series whose interests had moved on so greatly that it couldn’t be “Transparent” anymore.

It’s tempting simply to sever this finale from the rest of the series, to treat it like a bonus webisode, an alternative ending, a dream-sequence fantasia. But that also seems false. “Musicale Finale” is a departure that hurtles out of control. But I can’t say it isn’t true to the spirit of “Transparent,” which has always believed you have to embrace your mess to be who you really are.


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