Like the Pfefferman family, Transparent Musicale Finale is a little too much—okay, a lot too much—but that’s probably warranted, given that this 100-minute installment serves as the curtain call for Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking series. A fifth season was ordered in August 2017, just three months before lead actor Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual harassment by his former assistant Van Barnes and co-star Trace Lysette. Tambor was formally ousted from the series in February 2018. In May of that year, Soloway announced the show would end with season five, which was eventually replaced with a single finale episode.
That is perhaps not the most joyous way to begin a review of what is a vivacious, messy, and touching finale, but it borrows from the Musicale Finale’s own approach to reckoning with Tambor’s actions and legacy. Within the first two minutes, Maura Pfefferman is pronounced dead by her friend and roommate Davina (Alexandra Billings). There is no rush to the hospital, no fight over treatment plans; when the family reunites onscreen for the first time, it’s at a Jewish cemetery to discuss burial plans. While Maura’s presence (and lack of it) is felt throughout, Jill Soloway and Faith Soloway (who wrote the score) are more invested in the mourners: Shelly (Judith Light), Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ari (née Ali, played by Gaby Hoffmann). The Pfeffermans move on in much the same manner as the show does, with plenty of navel-gazing, weed, bursts of song, several uncomfortable stretches of dialogue from Shelly, and, most important, each other.
As it turns out, an hour and 40 minutes is at once plenty of time to cram in a season’s worth of family drama—starting with Maura’s will and the realization that Shelly and her kids never really knew Maura’s wishes, certainly not in life—and not quite enough to keep some characters from getting the narrative short shrift. Shelly is given the very Shelly storyline of processing her grief by putting on a musical about her family, which she casts with “doppelbangers” of her kids and late ex. Sarah, Josh, and Ari, already resentful of their issues being made even more public, are even more incensed when they found out that opening night is the same day as the funeral. The musical within the Musicale Finale gets a lot of screen time, because it’s the storyline that lends itself best to the format, and is also the only one that centers around a two-time Tony winner (Light, with back-to-back trophies in 2012 and 2013). Light, who began to steal the show after season three, justifies the focus, doing more belting and hoofing than anyone else, including what looks like a “Cell Block Tango”-inspired jam with lyrics so cringe-inducing that they make Shelly’s previous oversharing seem downright discreet. But it’s Davina who delivers a showstopping, elegiac number in the middle of the episode, backed by the trans teens she’s committed to helping.
The Musicale Finale also continues the Transparent tradition of retracing its steps, with characters going in circles (Josh wants an old lover back; Sarah is annoyed with Len’s parenting; Ari would like the attention on them, please and thank you), before reaching an untidy but heartfelt conclusion. Maybe it’s the air of finality, but there is a greater sense of resolution this time, one that’s represented in a colorful (in every sense of the word) coda. After spending much of the 100-minute runtime squabbling, crying, and otherwise running from their issues, the Pfefferman family and all its friends and extended members gather for Maura’s shiva, which gives way to two more rituals, one much more sacred than the other. Despite its catchiness, “Joyocaust” might be a bridge too far even for Transparent, which, just like every one of its characters, often pushed the boundaries of propriety. But the longer you listen to it, the notion of handing down joy and resilience along with the baubles, family legends, and a tragic history doesn’t sound so bad.
In many ways, the Musicale Finale feels like any other season of Transparent, albeit one with only three 33-minute episodes instead of 10 installments. But the show has also been thrown into hyperdrive—rather than feature one or two guest stars in a moment that actually lands, there’s a literal parade of familiar faces. Some arcs, like Josh’s, only become clear as they’re ending; others, like Sarah’s, never even get that far, which takes some of the resonance out of the family’s tell-all (to each other) after the funeral. And yet, just as in the season-four finale, there are also undeniably affecting moments that demonstrate just how much the characters have grown, like when Shelly admits to her kids that she “didn’t hold you. I just held on to you. There’s a difference.” Given that, just an hour (or, in the show, a day) earlier she was singing about how their boundaries are triggering for her, Shelly’s statement represents years of progress. Of course, that emotional exchange is followed by Shelly introducing the concept of a “Joyocaust” at a shiva, of all things, so maybe it’s a wash. But even that recapitulation, that reestablishing of the status quo, just feels thematically relevant to the musical(e) format. It wouldn’t be Transparent if we didn’t end up right back where we started.