It Still Stings: Jeffrey Tambor’s Stain on the Legacy of TransparentCourtesy of Amazon Studios TV Features Transparent
Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
For a period of time, my two favorite things to do while watching a comedy were to cry and think about my family members having sex. That wasn’t always how I approached the genre, but in 2013, on the still-burgeoning platform Amazon Prime Video, the first season of Joey Soloway’s marvelous series Transparent dropped. By forever rewriting the rules for what TV comedy could look and feel like, the show set a new standard for my own expectations of prestige TV: that culturally taboo topics around queer sexuality and gender could be broached on screen; humor and trauma could coincide and operate as siblings often do, tonally bickering and butting heads one minute and then standing proudly alongside one another the next; and, most importantly, that all of this could be done with a palpable sense of love and respect.
That’s why Transparent’s untimely dissolution from the public consciousness, epitomized by its head-scratching fizzle of a finale, was such a crushing blow to an otherwise groundbreaking show’s legacy. Over the course of five-ish seasons (more on that “ish” later…), Transparent documented the triumphs, mishaps, and awakenings of the Pfeffermans, a dysfunctional Jewish family struggling to see themselves and one another as their true selves in a perpetually hazy modern-day Los Angeles. There was so much sly humor and catharsis to be found in each of the three adult Pfefferman children’s long-delayed journeys toward maturation amid brushes with addiction and gender dysphoria, not to mention their mother Shelly’s (Judith Light) rediscovery of her own resilience toward generational trauma and patriarchal oppression.
However, the heart and soul of the show belonged to the family’s matriarch, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a retired university professor who disarms her children and ex-wife by transitioning to womanhood after nearly seven decades of “dressing up like a man.” After braving the coming-out process in the first season (with a few expected and not-so-expected hiccups along the way), Maura faces the only thing more terrifying: living openly as a trans woman in a world that has yet to fully understand what that means. Played with conflicting restraint and dauntlessness by the Emmy-winning Tambor, Maura alternates between a source of comfort and an inconvenience for her family; though her transition, in the end, proves an inspirational launching pad for everyone else’s undertakings toward becoming the best, most authentic versions of themselves as possible. By the end of the fourth season, Maura seems more at peace than we’ve ever seen her, happily engaged in a blooming relationship with boyfriend Donald (John Getz), feeling confident in her womanhood like never before, and sharing a moment of unbridled joy with Shelly and son Josh (Jay Duplass) in her reclaimed Pacific Palisades home.
Then, in the opening minutes of Transparent’s fifth season, Maura is found dead off-screen.
The reason for the writers’ decision here was no secret at the time. After the fourth season wrapped in 2017, costar Trace Lysette and Tambor’s assistant Van Barnes, as well as crew members Rain Valdez and Tamara Delbridge, came forward with accounts of sexual harassment by Tambor. After an internal investigation by Amazon, it was promptly announced Tambor would not be returning for a fifth and final season of Transparent.
Tambor’s ousting arrived at the crest of Hollywood’s #MeToo era that sparked international conversations about how power is abused and reinforced through silence. Tambor was one of a surprisingly (yet not-so-surprisingly) high number of individuals who would find themselves suddenly facing professional and legal repercussions for their misconduct in an industry that had consistently protected them from any sort of accountability for their actions. 2018 would also see the final season of Netflix’s House of Cards rather unceremoniously killing off antihero Frank Underwood, played by noted sexual predatorKevin Spacey, as well as Aziz Ansari’s declaration that his character’s screentime would be vastly reduced in the third season of Master of None in light of the controversy over his own sexual misdeeds. The behaviors of these men left showrunners and their studios scrambling for how to rewrite long-planned character arcs and plot lines without letting real-life controversies seep their way into the shows’ themes and reputations, and the team behind Transparent was no different. The question they had to ask themselves was: what does a season of Transparent look like without its trans parent?
It turns out, the question was in some ways less what it would look like and more what it would sound like, as Joey Soloway and sister Faith Soloway condensed Transparent’s fifth season into a 100-minute musical (the episode is appropriately flourished with the title Season 5, Episode 1, “Musicale Finale”) that sought to tie up all the series’ loose ends while celebrating its own lifespan. The premise was not a bad one, nor was it one that even seemed out of character for the show. Transparent was always a queer show, both in content and form. It rejoiced in busting down the walls that govern what could be depicted on TV as much as it reveled in dismantling the tenets of genre, blurring the binaries between comedy and drama, naturalism and magical realism, and character study and satire. Surely throwing a musical into the mix was just the next stage of evolution for a show that refused to subscribe to the rules of the establishment.
Except the experiment just didn’t work. For fans of the show such as myself, hitting play on the episode and immediately being barraged with an intercutting ensemble number on how much LA traffic sucks was a bit of a whirlwind (a certain LA-based musical also opens with a similar sentiment…), as was watching the next several scenes that find the remaining Pfeffermans reacting to the death of their Moppa without any song and dance to underscore their emotions. There is perhaps no genre as airtight in its conventions as the musical, with the main convention being that characters express the inexpressible through song. But the vast majority of “Musicale Finale’s” most touching moments come during quiet, music-less moments between a couple of characters, or eulogies delivered in earnest spoken word. A few musical numbers do delight—Shelly’s euphoric “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” is a blast, as is Rabbi Raquel’s (Kathryn Hahn) burlesque-inspired “Sit In It.” However, one can’t help shaking the feeling that, without lending the most significant moments of the episode to the musical format, the whole thing just feels like an aimless enterprise that doesn’t let us see who these characters really are, nor what the show is trying to be.
Inevitably, part of this disconnect comes from the lack of seeing Maura on screen. Even in death, she is still the link that connects the world of Transparent’s finale, as her shiva brings together nearly every character for a speed dating-esque series of one-on-one conversations that tell us “oh, so that’s what happened to so-and-so.” But without her physical presence on screen, everything still feels either unresolved or, worse, hastily patched together. Ari (Gaby Hoffman) can’t seem to forgive their Moppa for never giving them a proper bat mitzvah, so their siblings grant them an impromptu one. Sarah (Amy Landecker) quickly brushes over the fact that her throuple partner Lila (Alia Shawkat) took Plan B to avoid the possible pregnancy that served as season four’s cliffhanger. And Raquel forgives Josh after all his transgressions, and re-enters a relationship with the sad sack because… well, we aren’t really sure. For a show that thrived on the messy unresolvedness of life, “Musicale Finale” backtracks away from the complicated trials of its characters’ lives and settles for serviceable answers, making us question what the show’s identity ever was in the first place.
Transparent was never a perfect show in its content or backstage politics. Plot lines like its fourth season’s AirBNB shenanigans or its second season’s depictions of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) left much to be desired, and the initial casting of a cisgender Tambor in the role of Maura clashes with the ongoing efforts to allow actors who are transgender to depict their own experiences in film and TV. But what made the show special was that, like its characters, in spite of its screw-ups and mishandled opportunities, it persisted as its unapologetic self and laid down the groundwork for other shows with explicitly queer and trans themes to make their own marks on the TV landscape. Alongside programs like Bojack Horseman, The United States of Tara, and Louie (another excellent show that’s reputation is forever tarnished by its key player’s unforgivable behavior), Transparent ushered in a new era of TV comedy that didn’t try to obfuscate the more harrowing aspects of life with bright lighting and punchlines. It’s especially a shame that Transparent ended with a fizzle and has been largely forgotten in the public eye in light of the cultural and political climate we’re in now, where deeply empathetic and human representations of transgender personhood like those seen on Transparent could stand as testaments to the beauty and resilience of queer life.
With a finale that left so much to be desired, it’s hard not to imagine what was originally in store for the Pfefferman clan before Tambor was fired. Would Maura have still died? It seems unlikely, since Transparent’s spirit rested on the idea that people could be reborn time and time again as long as they made the decision to live their real lives without fear of hiding. Would the fifth season have kept with a more standard 10-episode, half-hour structure, or would it have bent its own format like it wound up doing in “Musicale Finale”? It’s tough to say, but I doubt whichever way it ended, it would not have felt as compressed or vexingly finite.
This frustrating predicament is what still stings hardest about Transparent’s conclusion. We want to be granted closure from a show filled with fictional characters (with one fictional character, the protagonist, in particular) with whom we’ve fallen in love over half a decade, but we don’t want that desire to take precedence over the real-life safety and bodily autonomy of the people behind the show, and so then we feel guilty for ever wanting “what could have been” in the first place. Clearly, the fault lies not with Soloway, the writing staff, or any of the cast and crew of Transparent. It belongs squarely with Tambor and the culture in Hollywood that allowed and continues to allow sexual misconduct to pervade without consequence. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling culpable for having assigned the man so much praise in the first place, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve mourned the loss over the legacy of a character that never existed and a show that didn’t deserve to have its reputation marred.
But one lackluster episode/season (I’m still a little unclear what to call “Musicale Finale”) shouldn’t serve as a synecdoche for the whole series, and one actor’s behavior shouldn’t discolor the excellent work that an entire cast and crew performed. Transparent’s finale may still sting, but it stings a lot less knowing behind-the-scenes justice was served, and the show will be remembered as landing on the right side of the ongoing struggle against a culture of sexual abuse.
Michael Savio is an editorial intern at Paste Magazine based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at NYU in media and humor studies.
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