“We had to find our way back to joy.”
That’s how Transparent creator Jill Soloway explained the mission statement of the Emmy Award-winning series’ ambitious—and certainly unexpected—Transparent: Musicale Finale movie, coming September 27 after five groundbreaking seasons and a headline-making scandal involving lead actor Jeffrey Tambor that threatened to derail the series entirely.
“We could have just said goodbye and backed away,” Soloway told journalists at a Television Critics Association press conference Saturday morning in Beverly Hills.
After Tambor, who played Maura Pfefferman, the trans matriarch of the show’s central family, faced two allegations of sexual harassment from members of the Transparent team in 2017, he left the series, leaving its future in jeopardy.
“Playing Maura Pfefferman on Transparent has been one of the greatest privileges and creative experiences of my life,” Tambor said in a statement at the time. “What has become clear over the past weeks, however, is that this is no longer the job I signed up for four years ago...I’ve already made clear my deep regret if any action of mine was ever misinterpreted by anyone as being aggressive, but the idea that I would deliberately harass anyone is simply and utterly untrue. Given the politicized atmosphere that seems to have afflicted our set, I don’t see how I can return to Transparent.”
He later backtracked on his decision to leave the series, but an investigation into the allegations made against him by former assistant Van Barnes and co-star Trace Lysette led Amazon to officially fire him in 2018.
“I have great respect and admiration for Van Barnes and Trace Lysette, whose courage in speaking out about their experience on Transparent is an example of the leadership this moment in our culture requires,” Soloway said in a statement. “We are grateful to the many trans people who have supported our vision for Transparent since its inception and remain heartbroken about the pain and mistrust their experience has generated in our community. We are taking definitive action to ensure our workplace respects the safety and dignity of every individual, and are taking steps to heal as a family.”
On Saturday, when asked about deciding to conclude the series with the song-and-dance finale movie, Soloway called the project “our chance to heal together,” gesturing at the show’s cast next to her—Judith Light, Alexandra Billings, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and new cast member Shakina Nayfack—as well as Soloway’s sibling, Faith, who composed the film’s music.
It’s not entirely a spoiler to reveal that the film begins with the news that Tambor’s character, Maura, has died. As the family plans Maura’s funeral, they grieve in different ways. Light’s character, Shelley, decides to write a musical play about her family’s story, casting doppelgangers for her children and spouse, including Nayfack, who plays the fictional Maura.
Nayfack referred to the Tambor controversy as the “great rupture of 2017,” adding that “there’s been so much magic and opportunity that’s been created by this show in the last couple of years, that if we were going to let it go down because of an unfortunate event, we’d be taking that away from everybody. And especially the trans folk who need this representation.”
We asked Soloway about how she approached the tone of handling the character of Maura’s death, as choosing that as the device for writing Tambor off the series could be construed as the Transparent team dancing on the grave—this is literally a musical, after all—of a person whose alleged behavior nearly ruined the legacy of the series.
“That occurred to us: Was this going to be taken as a celebration?” Soloway said. “But in fact when you watch the movie, there are so many unbelievably painful, heartfelt moments where our characters are mourning Maura and as actors and as creators we are mourning what has happened with our show.”
Soloway alluded to the theme of “Jewish pain” that has always permeated the series, and certainly the finale as well—this idea that if things are going too well then someone deserves something bad to balance out the fun. “This is too good: Golden Globes and Emmys, it’s coming for us,” Soloway said. “And it did feel like that for a minute, like we celebrated too much, we had too much fun. It’s such a Jewish question...and this movie goes straight for that question.”
When there were critics asking whether the show needed to go on or even creatively deserved to go on after the scandal, Soloway said once the cast dove fearlessly into the challenges of such a crazy idea as a musical finale, they knew their talent would justify the project’s existence.
More than that, though, the justification was the conversation and the meaning the show has had to the trans community, as Billings reminded closing out the press conference: “You have this show that begat a real conversation that was not happening before five years ago.”
She reminded that there were 13 trans people killed in June, which was LGBTQ Pride Month. Transparent and the people who work on it, she said, are not just in service of art, but in service of a greater purpose. Here’s a portion of the rousing speech she gave to end the morning:
The show is founded on a truth and a dialogue that had been in such secrecy and shame. I hope you all realize that as you sit at your computers writing this shit down. What’s important for you all to remember is that you are mouthpieces in the universe talking to human beings all over the world living in places where we’re still murdered, hands cut off because we’re queer. Beheaded. Thrown off buildings. So the stuff that you’re actually receiving from this little, tiny TV show is much larger than the chairs and the computers you’re sitting on. This was actually founded on someone’s family, for the love of Pete. This is historic. We come from history. So the job of writing all of this down isn’t just dictation. The job of this is responsibility. That’s artistic freedom at its core. This musical finale is more about going out in celebration, and isn’t that the key to freedom? That for me is everybody’s story.