Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime tend to design their original series to be binged, which gives their creators the freedom to develop stories more slowly and subtly. But there’s still a fundamental expectation that these shows will start off with the basics: introducing their characters, telling us where they live, and establishing whatever problems they’re having. What makes the “Transparent” season three premiere so bracing is that creator Jill Soloway doesn’t bother with any of that. With two full seasons in the books, she assumes her audience already knows the Pfeffernan family, and can handle an episode where only one of the clan appears. The premiere, “Elizah,” is bookended by scenes of Kathryn Hahn’s Rabbi Racquel Fein preparing a Yom Kippur sermon; but most of the half-hour follows one hectic day in the life of Maura Pfeffernan (Jeffrey Tambor).
The Toronto International Film Festival premiered the first three episodes of “Transparent” season three this year in its Primetime section. (All ten episodes will be available on Amazon Prime on September 23rd.) Without giving too much away, rest assured that the rest of the cast does eventually make an appearance, with pretty much every one of the show’s major players factoring into episode two (“When the Battle Is Over”) and three (“To Sardines and Back”). But given that some of the series’ best episodes have been digressions like “Best New Girl” and “Man on the Land,” it’s exciting to see “Transparent” throwing a curveball on its first pitch of the new season. “Elizah” is a funny, tense, and even scary half-hour of television, following Maura as her volunteer shift at an LGBTQ suicide prevention hotline leads to her chasing after one of the season’s new characters, Elizah (played by Alexandra Gray), on the seedier side of Los Angeles.
“When the Battle Is Over” functions as a more proper reintroduction, reminding viewers that Maura’s three adult children — the restless Sarah (Amy Landecker), the clumsily well-meaning Josh (Jay Duplass), and the adventurous intellectual Ali (Gaby Hoffman) — ended last season in relatively contended places, entering new phases in their careers and relationships. Soloway and her writers immediately begin unraveling everything in episode two, as the Pfefferman kids realize that everything they’d assumed they’d figured out about their lives is dependent on other people not screwing everything up. And as “Transparent” has noted again and again over the past two years, the only thing predictable about humans is their unreliability.
“To Sardines and Back” is almost as good as “Elizah,” starting with a clever prologue/flashback that shows pieces of the Pfeffernan’s life through the point-of-view of the family’s pet turtle. Episode three also features another of “Transparent”’s awkward family gatherings: a 70th birthday dinner for Maura that ends with an epic, heavily metaphorical game of hide-and-seek. During the party, Maura makes an announcement almost as stunning as the one that kicked off the series — when she revealed that she was transitioning from male to female — and the mad scramble around the house that follows dinner has a lot to do with everyone’s reaction to their patriarch/matriarch’s latest phase.
The first three episodes of this season don’t suggest much about what the arc and shape of the next seven episodes will be. So far at least, there are no ambitious ongoing flashbacks like season two’s trips to Berlin. And aside from what Maura’s up to, none of the Pfeffermans make any attempts in the season’s first third to shake anything up in a major way.
But the single-character focus of “Elizah” could end up serving as a telling overture for the season as a whole. Maura’s hectic journey into a world she’s ill-prepared to navigate represents “Transparent” at its best, revealing its lead character’s tender heart and colossal self-absorption through a trip to a low-rent mall — where she manages to offend or irritate nearly everyone she meets. Throughout the first two seasons, this show has dealt with the conflict that ensues when people try to be true to themselves, often at the expense of their loved ones. The season three premiere is like the whole show in miniature, and sets the tone for what should be another absorbing, painfully honest year of “Transparent.” [A-]