Strewn among the heap of the Transparent: Musicale Finale’s terrible choices is one very, very good idea. Call it transgenre: The half-hour dramedy series that ran for four seasons has transitioned into a 100-minute musical for its final bow. And, yes, it’s that kind of musical. It’s not merely punctuated with music and sing-alongs of preexisting songs, as Transparent has been in the past—this is the kind of production where characters spontaneously burst into original songs and do jazz hands. A show that centered on a transgender character while frequently demonstrating that all people are in some kind of transition to some extent lives by its own truth and stays in flux to the glittery end. That’s kind of brilliant.
This formal exercise even has the potential to impart empathy to its viewers. For essentially the entire first season, and intermittently throughout the next three, we watched as Maura Pfefferman’s family and friends adjusted to her transition. It wasn’t always easy, and they didn’t ask for it. But too bad, that’s life. So are we, as viewers, made to adjust to the show’s transformation. An earnest musical that wields amateurishness as a virtue may not be what we signed up for, but it’s what we ended up getting. So deal with it, says Musicale Finale.
It’s a fair point and, from a remove, a cool trick. But thinking about sound thematic integrity from a conceptual perspective and enjoying watching its execution are two very different things, Musicale Finale makes abundantly clear. This is an hour-and-forty-minute-long cringe with very little payoff. It is too long for its own good, yet too short to wrap up the preceding series in any satisfying capacity. In an attempt to get this thing over with, series creator Jill Soloway (who directed Musicale Finale, and co-wrote it with their sister, Faith) and company have failed to stick the landing. They had one job.
Maura is dead. If you didn’t already know that from watching the trailer for Musicale Finale, you know within three minutes of its start. Soloway killed Maura as a result of firing the actor who played her, Jeffrey Tambor, who was accused of sexually harassing his co-star Trace Lysette and his former assistant Van Barnes on the set of Transparent. Because much of Musicale Finale is devoted to mourning Maura, because so many conversations center her, because there’s even a stand-in at one point (via a musical within the musical that Judith Light’s Shelly attempts to put up, in a move similar to the one-woman show she mounted in Season 3), the finale is brimming with Maura. Maura, Maura, Maura. Tambor was thrown off the show only to have the presence of his character make it impossible not to think about him for the finale’s duration. It’s like when someone shaves their legs and the hair grows back darker and unwieldy.
Besides the overall sense of transition imparted in the finale’s formal exercise, very little is served by making Transparent a musical. Cutting from speaking to musical numbers solves a problem the show never had. In the musical format, songs generally allow characters to speak about emotions they wouldn’t otherwise in casual conversation, but Transparent is and always has been populated by characters who rarely hesitate to declare and ruminate on exactly what they’re feeling at any given moment. Faith Soloway, who wrote the music here, has described the function of these songs as allowing the characters to go deeper emotionally, but they actually have the opposite of that intended effect. Whereas feelings could linger for episodes, if not seasons, unresolved and nagging, here they’re stated and seemingly resolved upon the striking of the final chord. The presence of a song called “Your Boundary Is My Trigger,” a reference to a line from Season 1, illustrates just how long these characters can hold onto their feelings and how little the songs have to add to the greater narrative.
That’s a duet between Shelly and her daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) that crescendos in a faux-Fosse (faux-sse?) stage routine that finds Shelly surrounded by a chorus of people dressed like her. Blonde wigs, Spanx, and pink underwear fill the screen as Shelly sings to her daughter, I kid you not: “If I could, I’d shove you back inside me/From my belly, you’d provide me/With a map that you could guide me/And you’d pull my cord/Like a gentle, soft reminder/As you stretch out my vagina/My boundaries stretching wider/And I would clench my thighs and keep you there forever.”
In another scene, Shelly watches a preadolescent version of herself dressed as a ballerina dance with a Maura of the same age—she’s pre-transition, obviously, but also in a tutu and ballet shoes. They scat sing to Shelly. Literally, two Jewish kids dancing around her: “Sca-bee-dup-ba-doo-dup-blau/Scooby doot doo blah blau blau/Ba-du-buh-dup-duhhh.” Uh… huh… wha? The tone of the musical numbers drifts from earnest (Jay Duplass’s Josh and Kathryn Hahn’s Raquel share a syrupy duet with the lines: “And we the offspring springin’ off their king-size bed/They never ever heard what the rabbi said/Something like a vow on the day they wed”) to satirical, like Waiting for Guffman’s show-within-a-show, Red, White and Blaine, but less secure in what it’s actually sending up. Is this a joke on the very concept of musicals or the present actors who are uniformly bad at singing and dancing or Transparent or all entertainment that isn’t Transparent? Complete with an opening number set in Los Angeles traffic, “Sepulveda Boulevard,” Transparent: Musicale Finale is like La La Land, but somehow worse. I haven’t even mentioned the song whose chorus commands: “Shake your tushies till ya schvitz and sweat.” A groan big enough to adequately respond to this isn’t humanly possible.
The inevitable memorial service for Maura serves to usher in ancillary characters—hi, Shea (Trace Lysette)! Hi, Lila (Alia Shawkat)!—who do little more than show their faces as the show hurtles to a conclusion. Throughout Musicale Finale, a few primary characters are given more to do than repeat, “Maura/Moppa,” or engage in casually curious behavior with family members (call be prudish, but I find it unnerving that the Pfefferman siblings spoon each other and talk about being horny together). But they’re given scraps at best, and when certain (spoiler-y) developments do occur, they’re so abrupt and haphazard, it’s as though the character arcs are jutting at 90-degree angles.
You get the sense that when Ari (Gaby Hoffman) undergoes a certain rite of passage during a funeral, the powers that be were just trying to shoehorn in whatever. The fact is, there’s not enough going on and not enough explanation for what is to justify the very existence of Musicale Finale. Because of the elliptical nature of Transparent, there weren’t many real cliffhangers, there wasn’t much need for resolution. Watching this show meant spending time with an extraordinarily self-centered network of people, and at its most optimal, Transparent devised situations that challenged its characters based on their flaws. Making them exist in between-season purgatory for all of eternity could have been interpreted as poetic justice.
Here, it’s Soloway who’s being challenged to say something, anything to wrap up the beloved and groundbreaking show they devised and based on their own experience of having a trans parent. The impulse to speak and for it to be meaningful and powerful creates an anxious tension. Everyone could have quit while they were ahead. A show that once patiently examined the Holocaust’s generational trauma in a rather efficient and lyrical way, is reduced to offering a solution to that trauma, an “an equal and opposite reaction,” via a full-company musical number, “Joyocaust.” In it, Shelly hammily envisions taking the “concentration out of the camps” and later exclaims, “Hell yes, we’ve crossed the line!” directly into camera. You can feel the quality dip as viscerally as if you were riding a rollercoaster. Despite the good time apparently being had by all, if the smiling faces and good-sport attempts at dance are true indications, this is Transparent slumming it. Jewish culture was always a major theme of Transparent and it still is on Musicale Finale, but an Irish goodbye would have been sufficient.
Transparent: Musicale Finale premieres September 27 on Amazon.