The first four minutes of the new season of Amazon’s “Transparent” are a thing of hilarious perfection. Assembling for a photo at the wedding of Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy (Melora Hardin), the Pfefferman clan argues, primps, rearranges, nudges one another, tries and fails to smile convincingly, looks askance at the photographer’s dumb prompt words. Basically, they accurately represent what it’s like to take a family photo — or, for that matter, be in a family. Of course, the focus of this show comes to the fore when the photographer calls Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) “sir,” causing her to storm off, breaking up the shoot (but not before we glimpse Tig Notaro in an appearance as one of Tammy’s two ex-wives: “She’s collecting us like lesbian Pokemon,” she snarks to the other).
When it debuted in 2014, Soloway’s show quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of the year, breaking new ground on all sorts of fronts, not least the creator’s insistence on hiring transgendered crew and cast members for a show inspired by her own father’s transition.
Moving outward from the first season’s focus on Mort’s transition to Maura, the second season’s first episode, “Kina Hora,” is all about the universality of certain human experiences. It takes place largely from the point of view of Sarah on her fraught wedding day. In this, Soloway achieves the still rather subversive end of pointing out that no matter your gender or your orientation or who you love, weddings are still, at the end of the day, always kind of a shitshow (this one, perhaps, more than most, given the way it all ends up).
Soloway also deftly depicts the way in which the most monumental occasions in life can slip by one in a surreal way. As Sarah walks down the aisle, the ceremony flashes by in a series of real and hallucinatory images — at one point, her focus drifts away to a plane flying overhead towing a banner reading “We Buy Ugly Houses” — and, suddenly, she finds herself at the reception. Adding to the spectacle is the fact that all the guests have been instructed to wear white, resulting in the whole event looking vaguely like a cult induction.
Maura, who hovers on the periphery of this episode, is dealing with the appearance of her sister Bry (Jenny O’Hara) at the wedding without her knowledge, who heartbreakingly entreats Maura to let their mother die without seeing her as a woman. On a lighter note, Maura also has a timelessly parent-at-the-wedding reaction to Bry’s appearance: “How could you do this to me?” she asks Sarah.
Meanwhile, Josh (Jay Duplass) confides in Ali (Gaby Hoffman) that Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), with whom he’s now involved, is pregnant — after which Ali of course goes straight to Sarah with the news, who’s too busy worrying about the color of her eyebrows to care. It’s a comic soap opera that flits gently from one familial snag to another.
But Soloway’s biggest set piece is the “Hava Nagila” scene, which finds Sarah hiding in the bathroom having a panic attack about having made a huge mistake. As Tammy is hefted into the air alone, and the circling guests look increasingly confused, Maura’s nephew Simon (Bashir Naim) takes to the center of the circle, whirling around in a dance that transitions into a flashback to a raucous, variously-gendered party in 1933 Berlin (an allusion to Pfefferman family history?).
The crisis of the episode centers around Sarah, who’s convinced she doesn’t want to be married — to Tammy, or maybe in general — after all. When Raquel tells her she’s not legally married yet — the forms haven’t been sent in to be stamped — she breathes a huge sigh of relief. What is this ceremony, then, she asks her siblings? “It’s a pageant,” says Raquel, who could be describing life as much as just the wedding.
Soloway also captures some small, intimate moments between Maura and Shelly (Judith Light), who are looking out for each other on this emotionally fraught day. “I hope you feel beautiful,” Shelly tells Maura at one point. “Because you are so beautiful.”
It’s a feeling that suffuses this episode, despite (and/or because of) its emotional chaos. Soloway puts so much humanity and love into her characters that they do feel like family. Given the timing of its debut episode, “Transparent” should have viewers rejoicing to be reunited with the Pfefferman clan at a time when we’re all grappling with our own families during the pageantry of this holiday season.
“Transparent” Season 2 will be available to stream via Amazon on December 11.