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Transparent waves farewell, from the far-off shores of 2014

A giant musical finale reveals how little the show was ever about trans people.

Judith Light gestures in Transparent.
Shelly presents ... a show.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I still remember the way I felt the first time I watched the Transparent pilot.

Maura, the trans parent of the title, had gathered her children to come out to them. The kids continued to refer to her as “Dad,” and Maura was in so-called “guy mode,” the armor that trans women early in transition wear for uncomfortable situations. But I knew what Maura was going to say. The way her hands trembled as she began to talk, the way she struggled to speak over her kids, the way she finally resigned herself to “not tonight” — it felt a little like I was seeing into my own future.

I believe my inner monologue was, “Oh fuck oh shit oh fuck oh shit.” The only way I expressed this feeling outwardly was to take my wife’s hand and squeeze it a little more tightly. I don’t think she even noticed.

You might not remember this, but Transparent’s pilot (which was released in early 2014, several months before the rest of season one) keeps Maura’s trans identity from the audience for roughly half of the episode. But still, I knew, before she said anything.

I love the first two seasons of Transparent, and I have complaints about seasons three and four. But, inevitably, when people find out I am a trans woman and a TV critic, they ask me about the show. I rarely want to discuss it beyond a cursory, “Yeah, Transparent is pretty good.” The expectation, I guess, is that I will have special insight into the show. But I’m not sure I do. I’m not sure it’s “about” me, all evidence to the contrary.

It found me at a time in my life when I needed it as something to cling to, and now, as it leaves me — in the form of a two-hour musical movie finale that is truly unlike anything else in TV history — I’ve realized that I have moved beyond it just a little bit. I’m not a different person, except I kind of am.

Transparent’s reception within trans circles hasn’t always been positive

The Pfeffermans react poorly to some news.
The Pfefferman siblings spent a lot of this series making incredulous faces.

Even before the accusations of Jeffrey Tambor’s harassment of two trans actresses on the Transparent set tanked his previously solid standing among critics and the general public (he’d won two Emmys for playing Maura), Transparent had a fraught reputation within trans circles. Some of us liked the show. Others despised it. Still others thought it was good but could never overcome its original sin — casting a cisgender actor like Tambor in the role of a trans woman.

I am of about 15 minds on this issue. On the one hand, something as intimate as Transparent might have never gotten on the air without a well-known TV actor in the lead role, and I appreciate that the series helped create a general awareness of trans issues within a greater segment of the population than would typically know about them.

I also genuinely think Tambor’s work on the show was terrific. He did the research, and it shows. He talked to trans women. He consulted with creator Jill Soloway (who based the series on their own experiences with their own trans parent). He made sure to play Maura as more than a caricature.

But on some level, there’s an element of falsehood to all performances that aren’t influenced by actual life experience. There has to be. To play someone who is trans when you are cis, or someone who is blind when you can see, you necessarily have to create a rough sketch of who that person might be, and then fill in the blanks.

This is the work of all acting, and a skilled performer can often overcome the hurdle of not having lived their character’s experiences by collaborating with others who have. But in the case of cis actors playing trans people, there is always an outside quality to the work, a face pressed against the glass of somebody else’s life. That’s why trans people so often sense the inherent hollowness of these performances. For a truly egregious example, consider Jared Leto’s (Oscar-winning!) work in Dallas Buyers Club, where womanhood is treated as something his character puts on and takes off at will. Transness as a costume, not a person.

Even though Tambor avoided that cliché, he tended to process Maura’s womanhood through a kind of secondhand shop of the self — all of her trembling hand gestures and soft-spoken lines of dialogue felt as if he had filtered them through a lens of both trans women he had consulted, and whatever understanding he had of womanhood as a white man (and alleged serial sexual harasser) born in 1944. Like any actor, he mirrored others’ personhood — but when he played Maura, that mirroring went deeper than the clothes on his back.

That might be the difference between bad acting (like Leto’s) and good acting (like Tambor’s). But even the best cis portrayals of trans people — and again, I believe Tambor’s qualifies — are inevitably trapped by the fact that they can’t burrow down into the trans character’s soul. That’s why many in the trans community wish Maura had been played by a trans woman. A trans actress would have gotten the journey right on a level Tambor simply couldn’t ever achieve.

Yes, Transparent creator Jill Soloway is, themselves, non-binary, and thus under the trans umbrella. And yes, the show employed more trans people at every level of production than any other show in TV history that’s not Pose. And yes, it won Emmys and critical plaudits and made the world safe for more storytelling about trans people. All of that can be true, and trans people can still find Tambor’s presence offensive to begin with, and doubly so after learning of the accusations of sexual misconduct.

Nevertheless, there’s a layer of Tambor’s face-pressed-against-glass performance that gives Transparent its strength, and it’s one that haunts the finale, which reveals that the series was never really about Maura, anyway. But without her, it feels centerless.

The musical finale is fascinating as an attempt to end a story that resists an ending

The Pfeffermans do some dancing.
It includes whatever this is.

At the start of the Transparent finale — indeed, immediately after the opening number — Maura dies. We never see her corpse, nor are any photos of her displayed during her funeral. As with the final season of House of Cards, where the ghost of Kevin Spacey rattled its chains just off camera, Transparent’s finale tries to evoke Maura’s presence without evoking Tambor’s presence.

It’s more successful in doing so than House of Cards’ final season was. For one thing, the musical finale is, God bless it, so fucking weird that you’ll always be more distracted by how it bursts into song at inopportune moments than distracted by its incredibly earnest attempts to keep its formerly most recognizable star offscreen.

Soloway’s truly smart call rests in how the finale introduces a few stand-ins for Maura, in the form of a young trans girl who represents the life Maura might have had if she had transitioned during puberty, and an older, bald trans woman who takes on the role of Maura in a play staged by Shelly (Judith Light), Maura’s ex-wife. (For what it’s worth, at least one of the women Tambor harassed has a role in the finale, so at least she got paid. Soloway has spoken publicly about how they stumbled when first dealing with the accusations against him, and the actress’s inclusion in this finale feels like an attempt to right that wrong, at least a little bit.)

But Transparent was never exclusively about trans issues; it was also about what it means to be Jewish in the 2010s, as well as what it means to be an affluent Los Angeleno. The finale goes for broke in leaning on those additional two themes — especially in its affectionate portrayal of Judaism, which figures heavily in musical numbers that drip with occasional Yiddish. But it loses some of the way that Transparent’s slow atomization in its third and fourth seasons dealt with, say, Shelly coming to confront her own sexual assault at the hands of her childhood music teacher, or Ari’s own journey to claim their identity.

The finale is also... a lot. At all times, it feels like a full 10-episode season of Transparent crammed into two hours (roughly the running time of four Transparent episodes). It strains to incorporate every single plot point the show wants to pay off, from romantic complications between Maura’s son Josh (Jay Duplass) and his former girlfriend Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), to the gender journey of Maura’s youngest child, Ari (Gaby Hoffmann), who came out as non-binary in Transparent’s fourth season. (Ari is Soloway’s clearest analogue within the series, and the occasional jokes about how the family struggles with Ari’s they/them pronouns are a quick object lesson in humor rooted in personal experience versus humor rooted in observing a situation from the outside.)

And yet this attempt to wrangle chaos is also what I like about the finale — a mess, but a mess that is trying to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

The idea of Shelly staging a play about the family is the sort of thing that might have played better across a full season than in a two-hour movie (where it beggars belief that she is working on the play while simultaneously preparing for Maura’s funeral), but it allows for a kind of eerie resonance, as former versions of Maura and her three children confront the current versions of those children. When Maura herself seems to speak through the actress portraying her (played with real warmth and affection by trans actress Shakina Nayfack) late in the finale, it has the easy air of magical realism, a tone that often suits Transparent at its best.

Is it perfect? No. Is it an ending that wraps up all of what Transparent could have been? Also no. But Transparent wouldn’t have particularly benefited from a perfect ending, anyway. It’s too aware of how all endings are actually transitions.

What I talk about when I talk about Transparent

Transparent’s musical finale concludes with a real showstopper.
I’m not going to spoil the final number of Transparent’s finale, but... you have to see it to believe it.

There’s an idea that comes up a lot when talking about TV shows and movies of the past: They’ve “aged poorly.” You might encounter this concept any time some publication assigns a Gen-Z writer who’s just getting started in their career to watch a movie made more than 10 years ago, or any time someone points out that, hey, Friends told some pretty homophobic jokes.

The observation that something has aged poorly (or its cousin, the observation that something “doesn’t hold up”) is usually designed to flatter the present; don’t we know more than those bums in the past? But that flattery ignores the bumpy road of progress — the way that people really were aware of the homophobia within Friends back in the ’90s. It also diminishes the way that some art is so of its era that its greatest asset is the way it so skillfully captures a time and place that it gets stuck there.

Transparent is probably stuck. When the show debuted in 2014, it was unthinkable that a major TV network would make a show about a trans woman and cast an actual trans woman in the role; when it ended, FX’s Emmy-winning Pose starred multiple trans and non-binary performers, with even more trans people working behind the scenes. Transparent broke so much ground that it revealed the elements of its own foundation that were rotten.

I have changed since then, too. I needed Transparent — the show helped me get to a place where I came out not late in life, but in my 30s, when I have so much of my life hopefully still ahead of me. And now, somehow, I am in a place where I want to consume stories about my experiences as portrayed from the inside, not through the eyes of others who’ve watched and paid close attention but perhaps not entirely understood. I don’t want someone whose face is pressed against the glass. I want someone enjoying the warmth of the house.

As I have transitioned, many things I once loved have lost the resonance they once held. Maybe Transparent will be one of those things. I watched the finale not as a welcome farewell to a TV show I have treasured, but as a somewhat awkward reunion between myself and an old friend — I still appreciate what it gave to me, and I still love the parts of it that I love, but I am also such a different person now that I understand it might be good for us to part.

There is an effort, in some corners, to cancel Transparent in a more metaphorical sense than its already literal cancellation, to salt the earth around the show and make it forbidden. I think Transparent is too wily and unpredictable for that. In a few years, it will be rediscovered for its better angels. But it has aged poorly. It is no longer the standard bearer for trans people on TV, as ill-fitting as that title always was. And yes, it is stuck in 2014.

And I can only be so bold as to partially write off what was once one of my favorite shows, now that I have crossed a threshold of myself. Early in my transition, my therapist, a trans man, told me that to him, Transparent didn’t really capture transition all that well, but it did capture the way families react to transition. Maura’s family is outwardly supportive, but also makes her journey all about them. Maura revealing her true self causes all sorts of other family secrets to come spilling out, going back several generations. But Maura, especially after the first season, isn’t a protagonist. She is only a catalyst.

I eventually came to share my therapist’s view of the show. After I started coming out to my loved ones, they looked at me differently — even those who were supportive. They sometimes weren’t sure what to say to me. They over-apologized if they used my old name. They often expected me to be responsible for their emotions around my transition. They wanted my story to be about them, too.

That might end up being Transparent’s legacy — we now have better stories about trans people than this one, but we don’t currently have a better story about what it means to be a cis person and learn you have a trans relative. Maura’s ex-wife and children find new pieces of themselves because she comes out, and some of those pieces are sad and angry, but some are happy and hopeful too.

A few nights ago, my wife watched the Transparent finale for the first time, as I was doing other things around our apartment. An early number features both Shelly’s hallucination of the alternate young Maura who transitioned as an adolescent girl, and Shelly’s own adolescent self; it’s a song about what Shelly and Maura could have been if they were girlhood friends instead of whatever they turned out to be, and it roils with thwarted potential and might-have-beens.

I heard my wife gasp for breath, and when I looked over, she was sobbing. I understand why you might be curious about what I think of Transparent. I truly do. But for as much as I loved the show, it was never my story. It was always hers. And my face is pressed against the glass, trying to understand.

The Transparent Musicale Finale is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, where you can also watch the first four seasons.

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