Amazon’s “Transparent” will have a chapter, or a section of one, in some to-be-written history of television, in part thanks to how brazen and how daring its ideas were for its moment. Some of those were ideas that came to seem simply logical in retrospect: The show was a pathbreaker for trans representation onscreen, casting trans performers to play characters (though, notably, not the “trans parent” of the title) whose journeys they shared. This came years before FX’s more polished “Pose,” and represents a meaningful step forward; it’s “Transparent’s” legacy, and a good one.
Others of the show’s choices — its assertiveness in moving its characters in radical new decisions, only to reverse those decisions and return the story to a consequence-free stasis episodes later; its tendency to substitute a robust emotionality over storytelling rigor — were carried across, or almost were, thanks simply to the show’s brio. Pushed along by Jill Soloway, a showrunner whose force of personality helped make them a public figure, the show believed in itself strongly enough that it could seem churlish to ask what the plan was, say, for any of the characters other than the three (played by Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light, and Gaby Hoffmann) on whom the show tended to focus most closely.
Unfortunately, if shows’ last impressions are how they last in memory, “Transparent” will be remembered for its least admirable qualities — vacillation, imprecision, flippancy. The series, which is to end its run with a feature-length musical episode premiering Sept. 27 after a public screening at the Tribeca TV Festival Sept. 15, pushes and shoves its way towards attempted profundity in songs of wildly variable quality, while simply ditching out on the storyline of several characters it never knew what to do with.
The format and premise here stem from the departure of Tambor, who’d occupied the show’s center when it began and had increasingly grown a more diffuse presence even before his firing after the broaching of charges of workplace misconduct from others involved in “Transparent.” We learn that Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman has died in her sleep; what follows takes place in the immediate aftermath, as her effects are dispersed and her family mourns in their own way.
Worry that Tambor’s shadow would loom large over the special would have been misplaced. The Pfefferman family’s way of dealing with crises small and large is centering themselves, and through the shapelessness of grief and the bagginess of “Transparent’s” storytelling, we check in with various characters. Of the adult children, Hoffmann’s Ari (née Ali) continues working through the process of decoding what faith means on a personal level; Josh (Jay Duplass, underserved) gets one last run at love with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn); Sarah (Amy Landecker, yet more poorly served) is also around. Meanwhile, their mother Shelly (Light) is working on putting on a theatrical spectacular based on her own family life, an enterprise that for the other characters represents a breach of decorum and for viewers at home will likely be the decisive push away from reason that makes this finale fall short.
“Transparent” was always elastic with its reality, in moments powerful and confusing. And a musical episode is necessarily going to play things yet more fast and loose. But there’s a pointlessness to the whole enterprise here, a sense that one’s last looks at characters who were uniquely well-drawn and carefully wrought are being dithered away on a theatrical framework that requires so much jerry-rigging to make sense that moments and interactions are slipping away. It’s worth emphasizing how little Sarah and Josh — two characters whose anomie in love and life were always thoughtfully played, if confusingly written — get to do; they don’t get the chance to establish how they’ll live on in our memory after the show ends, because the show’s already forgotten them in telling this story. The show’s legacy of casting trans performers continues with a new character played by Shakina Nayfakh (a talented star of “Difficult People”), but it’s late in the day to bring in new players, not least when so many we’ve known for years now are so lost.
This episode was plainly a passion project for Soloway, whose sibling Faith wrote the music; it ends with a sweeping statement about the nature of Jewish existence whose conceit it seems unsporting to reveal, but to say that its underpinning central metaphor about celebrating one’s life despite memories of the Holocaust is carried across with the sensitivity and grace of the fictional musical “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers.” It seems designed to be brashly offensive, and without getting into details, I would say that I found its deployment of gallows humor about the Holocaust gross and unworthy of the show. It’s as though Soloway has become convinced that they have earned the credibility to say anything, and that any of their own issues with tone are really the listener’s. It’s a really bad note to go out on.
But more than graceless and galumphing — which it is – it also, crucially, feels random. Deciding in the final moments of “Transparent” that what the show is entirely about is generational trauma is well enough, if eliding so many other of the show’s notes; committing to exorcising that trauma through exuberant dance and song badly misunderstands what this cast has done for seasons now and can do so well. It’s another one of “Transparent’s” big swings that doesn’t connect — but it’s the last image we’re left with, a finale seemingly built to diminish the show in memory and ensure that its recording in the annals of TV history is less chapter than footnote.