Perhaps it’s fitting that “Transparent” is a show that began as one thing and, over the last five years, became something else.
The series created by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Jill Soloway that put Amazon Prime Video on the map began in 2015 as a funny, empathetic and grounded family dramedy about three adult children coming to terms with their father's transition to a woman.
The show ended last week not with a new season but a movie-length “musicale finale,” a wild 100-minute ride that mixed a mature meditation on the grieving process with off-the-wall song-and-dance numbers, culminating in a color-and-glitter-drenched “Joyocaust” billed as an “equal and opposite reaction to the Holocaust.”
“Hell, yes, we crossed the line,” somebody sings at one point. Can’t argue with you there, “Transparent.”
I’m guessing this won’t play well with casual “Transparent” fans, already frustrated by some of the narrative and emotional detours taken over the last four seasons, picking up and discarding characters and subplots along the way. But I’m just as sure that diehard “Transparent” fans who’ve stuck with the show will love it, if only because it shows how bold the show became, not worrying about appeasing that first group.
Part of the reason for this truncated final season was practical. Jeffrey Tambor, who played Maura Pfefferman and was the Emmy-winning heart of the early seasons, was fired from the show after Season 4 after allegations of sexual misconduct. Even though the series had broadened beyond Maura's story by Season 4, losing the "trans parent" of "Transparent" seemed like a fatal blow.
But, as they say on Broadway, the show must go on, for one more episode at least. The finale opens with the news that Maura has died, and follows her family’s attempts to not only mourn her, but reckon with their own desires for change. The storylines of Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Josh (Jay Duplass) feel rushed in this finale, with more of the attention on gender non-binary sibling Ari (Gaby Hoffmann) and their desire to become a rabbi.
Separately, Soloway’s sister Faith has been writing songs about the show throughout its run, and those songs form the emotional backbone of the finale. Maura’s ex-wife Shelley (Judith Light) decides she’ll process her grief by writing a musical about the family, casting lookalikes to play Maura and the three siblings. But the songs spill off the stage and into the world of Pfeffermans, with musical numbers that range from just okay to really fun.
Past guest stars like Kathryn Hahn, Bradley Whitford and Cherry Jones all make cameos, and the emotional epiphanies of the three Pfefferman children feel a little rushed. It all feels a little daffy, a little defiant, and a little unsatisfying, despite some very moving moments. A funeral rendition by Maura's roommate, Davina (Alexandra Billings), surrounded by a chorus of homeless trans teens, is very poignant and should have been the emotional climax of the episode. But then, here comes that Joyocaust!
Maybe, like Maura, “Transparent” didn’t really become something different. Maybe this was always the show it was, deep down, and now it has the freedom and confidence to show that proudly.
Also on streaming: “Is ‘The Politician’ the most annoying TV show of 2019?” wrote The Guardian. Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) signed a $300 million development deal with Netflix, and the first result of that, premiering last Friday, is this show starring Ben Platt as a high school student plotting to become class president. Isn’t Platt, like, 30, you say? True, but like a tawdry modern-day “The Crown,” Murphy plans to chart Platt’s adult career in politics in future seasons. Which sounds even more annoying.
Acorn’s new Italian drama “Back Home” has echoes of “Rip Van Winkle” and “Cast Away.” A businessman awakes after five years in a coma and finds that his world has changed, and has to adjust to things like his wife now romantically involved with his best friend. It premiered Monday, Sept. 30.