[This is a review of Transparent season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is not without a certain degree of difficulty that a show filled primarily with selfish, entitled, unhappy characters is also a show that feels so relatable, so likeable, so distinctly human. Creator Jill Soloway has imbued Transparent with a cast of characters who make up the Pfefferman family and are defined not merely by their desires, disappointments, and indecisions, but by the way they are all tied together to feel real, and plainly a part of the human experience.
Amazon released the season 2 premiere of its award-winning series early -- ahead of the entire season being made available on December 11 -- and it turns out, 'Kina Hora' is the best episode of the series so far. And while it is great to be back in the company of the Pfeffermans and all the manic chaos that inevitably erupts around them, it's difficult not to think about the episode first in terms of the fantastic directorial and storytelling choices made by Soloway and how those choices elevate the premiere, and the series, to new heights.
With the Pfeffermans, there's always a storm cloud on the horizon. But in the premiere, the storm is already in underway, as evidenced by the static yet chaotic four-minute shot of everyone attempting to remain still long enough to pose for a family portrait. The opening unfolds before the wedding of Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy (Melora Hardin), but the fact that it remains focused on (nearly) every character in the series and the cacophonous sounds of their inquiries, protests, and passive-aggressive comments, signals the way in which Transparent season 2 has expanded to officially be about the Pfeffermans as a unit, and not solely about Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and her personal journey.
That opening shot is masterful in both its deliberateness and its simplicity. Because it insists on presenting the full Pfefferman experience in one unfiltered, unedited shot, you could spend hours parsing every second of it, every line of dialogue, every facial expression and rejoinder – non-verbal and otherwise – and come away feeling as though you have spent your entire life in the presence of this family. Soloway excels at making moments count in both their ability to deepen your understanding of these characters and in how intensely uncomfortable these moments can become.
Here, though, it's not really the result of the Pfeffermans that makes the scene awkward after too long, but rather the inability of the photographer to capture them without resorting (ignorantly or otherwise) to pejorative anti-Semitic and transphobic comments. And yet, despite those comments, the opening shot never waivers from its stance, it never cuts to a close-up or reaction shot from Maura, the photographer, or anyone else. That says a lot about this show and Soloway's tremendous instincts as a filmmaker. Instead, it remains focused on the Pfeffermans as a whole, simultaneously underlining the center of the series (i.e. the Pfeffermans and those trapped in their gravitational pull) and family's innate ability to make everything about them – both as a group and on an individual basis. And just in case you didn't quite get that from the four minutes spent trying to capture the Pfeffermans in all their white-suited glory, there is a brilliant visual gag of Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman) stepping into the foreground to squabble, just as Tammy's family (the Cashmans) threaten to become the center of our attention.
Tammy and Sarah's wedding is as Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) describes: "A very expensive play," and as such, there is a pervasive sense of drama lurking behind all the half-smiles, bickering, and especially the rancor over certain semi-estranged, bigoted guests. Sarah's sudden indecision about her decision to marry Tammy is dramatic and comical all at the same time, but the show doesn't necessarily ask the audience to feel one way or the other about it. It just is. That's true of all the Pfefferman children's problems, as well as Maura and Shelly's (Judith Light). And that frees Soloway up to turn Sarah's walk down the aisle into a nightmare of self-conscious anxiety and sudden apprehension that culminates in Landecker offering what may be the greatest facial expression on television in 2015 and commemorating the end of the ceremony by stepping on the glass like she's trying to terminate a particularly offensive and oversized cockroach.
As such, Sarah's marriage to Tammy falls apart before it's even begun, a fact that's helped when Raquel informs the three siblings that, legally, the marriage hasn't been made official. And despite being a bride, Sarah's eyes light up for the first time upon hearing this miraculous news. Those aforementioned Pfefferman problems are front and center in this moment, which sums up Sarah's relationship with Tammy, inasmuch as Sarah is concerned anyway. But there are other problems that loom on the horizon, too, like Josh and Raquel's already failing relationship (made evident by her telling him not to "betray me and then tell me it's a gift"), Maura and Shelly's boundary-testing and sure-to-be-emotionally confusing bond, and the threat of Maura's semi-estranged mother and sister.
Like Sarah and Tammy's marriage, everything feels like its being built up so that it can make a spectacle of falling down. That certainly is the case with Josh and Raquel, whose relationship seems to exist only because Josh really wants to give fatherhood a try – well, fatherhood that he knows about from the start, as the show slyly slips in that, yes, DNA tests confirm he is Colton's (Alex MacNicoll) biological father – and maybe to prove Ali wrong. But mostly, it feels like he is trying to convince himself that which he fears the most is untrue: that he's unlovable.
And so, in the episode's gorgeous closing shot, the camera pans from right to left, turning each of the Pfefferman's respective hotel rooms into spaces where neuroses and fears are compartmentalized, left to marinate, made separate from one another for the first time. Josh almost desperately asserts that he and Raquel are "lovable"; Sarah explains to Tammy that the "moment" is over; and Shelly assures Maura she's "beautiful". Only Ali is alone with her fixations and personal terrors, staring blankly out at the night sky before a woman from an earlier, seemingly digressive flashback to 1933 Berlin is seen with her on the balcony – a portent of the past's influence on this season's storyline, perhaps?
In a sense, this purposeful shift from Maura as the central character to all of the Pfeffermans (which, admittedly, became obvious about midway through season 1) is reminiscent of the first season's finale, but also of Soloway's earlier efforts on HBO's Six Feet Under. That was another show about a clan of vain, self-obsessed neurotics who, no matter how far apart they seemed in any given moment, always found their way back to one another, whether they liked it or not.
Transparent season 2 will be available in its entirety Friday, December 11 on Amazon Prime.