Warning: This post contains lots of spoilers for the Transparent Musicale Finale, so you should watch it first!
Riese: So, a few weeks ago when I got the screener from Amazon you obviously came over immediately to watch it, and then we saw it again on Tuesday at an event at The Wing which was followed by a conversation with Jill and Faith Soloway. Both of us liked it the first time but then… LOVED it when we saw it with a group? What’s your theory about why we felt that way?
Drew: After two years away from the show, with all that’s happened since the fourth season premiered, and with this being a musical, I know I spent a lot of my first watch trying to decide if the finale was… good? I think I was too distracted by how strange it felt to be watching the show again, and to be watching a musical of the show, to fully embrace what it was doing. But on a second viewing I had a better idea what to expect and felt way less suspicious. And that allowed me to just enjoy it! I also think it’s worth considering that it’s a musical in the grandest sense! So seeing it in a theatre space really encouraged that energy. Since most people will be watching at home I’d suggest turning the lights off, turning the volume up, and trying to enjoy the finale as the spectacle it is.
Riese: Totally, you’re right! It was cinematic. Musicals aren’t meant for small screens in small rooms. Also, for me, watching something with a large audience is preferred for a comedy because laughing together in a room to a joke we all find funny is like, one of my favorite things to experience as a human being, period. Having already seen it, I was interested to see which jokes would land, and when specifically everybody was going to cry. I think also I wasn’t expecting the finale to be centered entirely on Maura’s death, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
Drew: The first time we watched I was also unsure how I felt about that. But this time around it felt right. It’s a common cis refrain to talk about a family member transitioning like a death. There was something poignant to me about starting the show with Maura coming out and ending it with her dying. It’s a nice bookend, and makes a very clear point, that the first “death” was not a death at all, but really all of their beginning.
Riese: Totally, yes! Speaking of you saying astute things about this show, you wrote extensively about your personal connection to the show in an essay we published on Monday, which also touches on the role it played in you coming out to yourself and then the world about being trans. You also talk about how in your first watch of it, it wasn’t the trans stuff you connected to — it was its portrayal of LA Jews. I remember my Mom telling me that a lot of people in her congregation — straight people! — watched Transparent just because of its Jewishness, which was hard to find on television.That’s a huge reason I connected to it too. It’s not just its incorporation of Jewish rituals and landmarks, or even just its distinctly Jewish culture. It’s a Jewish state of mind. I’d argue that it’s the most Jewish show in the history of television.
Drew: Well, first of all, Shana Tova. Rosh Hashanah is less than a week away and the release date of this finale does not feel like a coincidence.
Riese: It doesn’t! I know Jill intentionally centered each season on one big Jewish holiday — Shabbat for Season One, High Holidays for Season Two, Passover for Season Three and Sukkot for Season 4. I agree that this weekend was an intentional choice. Amazon shows always drop on Friday, so this was the closest they could get to Rosh Hashanah.
Drew: And yes, it really was the most Jewish show ever. You’re right. We had a Yom Kippur episode! A Passover episode! Jewish funerals, Jewish weddings. One of the main threads of the show surrounds Ari’s canceled Bat Mitzvah. The second season takes place in 1933 Germany. The fourth season takes place in Israel and Palestine. And the last words of the first season are “Oy Gevalt”!! But beyond these obvious touchstones, there’s something very Jewish just in the way the characters speak and interact. At the very least a certain type of middle class/upper middle class Reform Jew. I love how the Pfeffermans talk over each other. I love how nobody has any boundaries. I love how everyone leads with guilt. I said this in my essay, but until Transparent I hadn’t realized how much I was adapting my reality when I watched families interact on TV.
Riese: Yes! The lack of boundaries, the degree to which Shelly is both utterly obsessed with and consistently thwarted by her children. Young Ari skipping around in the woods or lounging on her couch while chanting their Torah portion — G-d have we ever seen anything like that on TV? These benign inclusions show up when the writers know the territory. It was so resonant. Jews are extra. We’re so extra! We share our enormous feelings. We yell, we hug, we cry in public. It’s nothing like, for example; WASPs, who feel so restrained and secretive. It’s an entirely different environment in which to come out or be queer, because again, nobody has any boundaries! Nobody is going to just act like your girlfriend isn’t there and isn’t your girlfriend, she is going to be addressed and grilled and you are going to be embarrassed.
Drew: That’s so real! I hadn’t even thought about it specifically tied to how families react to queerness, but OF COURSE. Whether or not someone is comfortable with the change, they’re absolutely going to want to discuss it! And I guess that’s very Jewish. One of my favorite quotes in the show is from the fourth season when Alia Shawkat’s character says, “Secrets are kind of like a perfect stand-in for boundaries.” I love how that connects to queerness. Being out of the closet is really intense when you’re related to Shelly Pfefferman.
Riese: So the finale — was perhaps its most Jewish episode yet. Every detail, down to the spread at the shiva. I think part of my affection for it at the screening was sharing it with what I assumed was a huge chunk of Jews in the audience, who also found subtle inclusions like grievers shoving heavily schmered bagels into their mouths to be specific moments of humor.
Drew: Yes! I loved the call back to the first season with Shelly obsessing over the mustard. And the shot of someone putting fish on their plate. With both of these shivas it really felt like, yes, this is how we are when we grieve. There’s a humor and absurdity to it that I’ve rarely, if ever, seen portrayed.
Riese: So — at the panel, Jill and Faith talked about how the decision to do a musical was partially a response to the Jeffery Tambor situation — they wanted to do something that felt different than prior seasons, like they were doing something new, rather than doing the old thing with a notable absence. What do you think of that choice?
Drew: I think I can’t wait for the soundtrack to come out? (ETA: Now it has!) I mean, objectively, it’s an absurd choice. I felt the same way about the announcement as I did after the first season when Jill said in an interview that the second season would have flashbacks to 1933 Berlin. But time and again, throughout the show’s run, I think its boldest choices were its best. There was always a certain surrealism to the show mixed in with some stellar musical moments, so a musical finale sort of makes a lot of sense. Sorry, a musicale finale.
Riese: Right, likeTransparent was far more grounded in realism than, say, The L Word or Orange is the New Black, but they made space within that reality for blurred lines between the past and present, for example, where the visualization feels surreal but the experience relayed feels material. Still — Glee or Riverdale are already so campy and stylized that it fits right in, but Transparent? Then I remembered all the times people broke into song on Six Feet Under and was like… this’ll be good. Plus I love Transparent and I love musicals, so why wouldn’t I love this? What was your favorite song?
Drew: It won’t be the song I listen to most out of context (that would be “Sepulveda Boulevard” or “Let Her Be Okay” probably), but my favorite musical moment was “Come Through Shelly.” I was so happy to see Sophie Giannamore back playing Young Maura and I just found it really affecting to see her and Shelly young, free from all their coming trauma, in this very cliché space of femininity: ballet. Maura says something like “I waited so long to be who I wanted to be, don’t wait any longer” and it just really touched me, maybe less for what it meant to Shelly and more what it meant for Giannamore to be singing that as a young woman who, unlike Maura, did not have to wait.
Riese: Wow, yeah. That song also played a lot better on the second watch for me. I really liked “Your Boundary is my Trigger” because of its content — I’m always interested in how a lot of the concepts we have for mediating conflict and other types of intra-community discord can, if granted unimpeachable holiness, easily become at odds with each other. I really liked a lot of them … “Sin In It” was really fun, I loved “Where Have You Been” and “Sepulveda Boulevard” and “Father’s House.” I can’t pick! …Least favorite?
Drew: I didn’t immediately have an answer which is… impressive. Was there a song attached to Ari’s drug trip? I felt like that went on just a bit too long.
Riese: Yeah, the part where her family becomes a ‘70s sitcom seemed like it was really fun for the actors but ultimately pointless. I think the trip involved a reprise of “Father’s House”? I think “It Was You” was the one I was least engaged with. I was also a little apathetic about Josh and Raquel’s duet since I’m apathetic about Josh. So, what do you think the finale did well?
Drew: I think the show did well what it’s always done well. It found humor in trauma. It makes so much sense to me for the show to go out with “Joyocaust.” From the beginning it took topics that we usually think of as dramatic and found a lightness by just being real. Queer people, Jewish people, and, most significantly, trans people, have been portrayed in really depressing ways. When there is humor, it’s broad and often we’re the joke rather than being in on the joke. But then I think of a moment like in season one when Josh says, “They went to the Beverly Center with him like that, Mom!” and Shelly replies, “Ew, no one goes to the Beverly Center.” The show undermines a cis person’s transphobia using a judgemental Jewish mother and it’s so funny and brilliant! As I explain this I feel like anyone who isn’t Jewish and from LA and trans, or around trans people, would have no idea what I’m talking about. But that’s kind of great!
Riese: It is! I feel like they kept that up in this finale with Shelly’s reaction to Ari changing their name and officially changing their pronouns. Like right from the jump they just dived RIGHT into that.
Drew: There are also moments that are especially funny for us but still work for everyone. Like the Holocaust conversation between Sarah and her kids in the finale.
Riese: That scene was one of my favorite Transparent scenes of all time, actually. It was so funny, I was excited to watch it with an audience. I know people are gonna have feelings about Joyocaust, but I think what that scene and also that song addressed was a very real element of Jewish life — I remember as a kid just feeling like Christians had much happier songs and happier holidays!! Which is not true and ridiculous, but Jewish education is very focused on, yes, the Holocaust. It’s… too complicated to get into here, but I feel like Joyocaust is gonna be a very controversial song, but I think for Jews specifically, it makes sense.
Drew: I agree completely. I remember as a kid during Passover I was like, wait we can’t eat bread because we didn’t have time for bread as slaves? Shouldn’t we celebrate not being slaves by eating as much bread as possible? And the adults were like, nope dip your bitter herbs in some tears and stop being the wicked child.
Riese: Yeah my friends were like, hunting for chocolate bunnies and the best thing on my plate was supposed to resemble the mortar we used to build pyramids for the Pharaoh while we were slaves in Egypt. But then I grew up and now I see the joy in it. So — where did the finale go wrong? For me, there’s a huge lull in the middle where we’re not getting any new emotions really, just more songs and more sadness.
Drew: Yeah I think that’s the drug trip part I mentioned. The pacing just gets a bit lost. I wish that time had been reserved for Shea to have more of a moment. I understand that where the show has gone since season three it makes narrative sense for her to only make a couple appearances. But she started as one of two major trans women on the show and I wish she had more of a send off. Can Trace Lysette sing? I don’t know! But I would’ve liked to have found out.
Riese: I did appreciate the few seconds we got reminding us that Trace Lysette sure can dance.
Drew: I also think it’s worth discussing the show’s queerness. We can, and should, judge the show on a metric of trans representation, but it’s worth acknowledging that it was also fairly revolutionary in its portrayal of messy queerness. Every member of the Pfefferman family is somewhere on the bisexuality spectrum except Josh. That’s crazy! And the sex scenes have always been so good!
Riese: Yes, totally. I feel like this is the thing I’ve said most often about this show on this website — that what struck me and impressed me from the jump was that they were willing to present the possibility of an almost entirely queer family. I feel like that kind of thing was probably avoided in the earliest days of LGBT media because in a way it was a negative stereotype — that gay parents produced gay children. But they were like fuck it this family is queer let’s do it! In Season One, Ari was ostensibly straight and i remember thinking like, yeah I guess there’s no way that they’d make them queer too, that would be over the “limit” (whatever that is). But they did. I also remember watching the original pilot and being like wait…. the oldest daughter is … bisexual? On a show with a trans woman at its center? There’s no way this is gonna get picked up.
Drew: I was glad Melora Hardin and Cherry Jones came back for brief moments in the finale. And it just reminded me of all the characters’ sexual journeys and how well they were all handled.
Riese: Yes! And they are both such TYPES — lesbian types that we all know SO well, you know? Even like, the jostling over carrying the ark. Are you sad that it’s over? I think I’m gonna miss it. There’s nothing else like this out there. I know it has its myriad issues, but wow, it was just so smart and so funny and so queer and so resonant.
Drew: I felt really complicated as I was rewatching the show for my essay. I was reliving so many major moments of my life and grappling with the problems, on-screen and off, that the show did have. But once I finished my piece and with how celebratory the screening at The Wing felt… I don’t know. I now feel this very unabashed affection for the show as a whole. I am really sad it’s over. There probably will never be a show that I don’t write myself that will speak to me as much as this one did. And if we’re just talking about Jewish television, it ending the same year as Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feels especially sad. All three shows resonated with that part of me and so many parts of me and I’m going to miss them.
Riese: Same, I’m working on a piece that’s a little bit about that. A lot of losses this year!
Drew: But I’m also really excited about the queer and trans TV that exists now that did not when Transparent began. Pose and Vida are two shows I especially love, both reaching the quality they have because their crews are not dissimilar in experience from their characters.
Riese: Yes! Transparent isn’t really ahead of the curve anymore.
Drew: I think it’s really interesting when reflecting on what Transparent got right and what it got wrong to think of that argument between Jill Soloway and Jenji Kohan around who should be in the writers room. Jill was on the side of including those whose stories are being told and time and time again when the show stuck to that it was at its best. Transparent came about at a really interesting time in trans media and I hope we can all learn from its triumphs as much as we do its mistakes.
Ari says their Torah portion means that “if you leave your parents’ house and go out into the world and do something different than what they taught you, that you will be blessed.” I think this is a sentiment to hold onto as queer people. But I also think it’s something to hold onto as queer creatives. I want to see us continue to push the boundaries of whose stories get told and the ways we tell them. Imperfect characters, bursts of surrealism, full-blown musical numbers. Let’s go beyond expectations and find our own artistic paths.