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The first shot of Transparent season 2 perfectly sets up a brilliant season of TV

Amazon has made the show's second season premiere available. You should watch it right now.

The Pfeffermans are back in a gorgeous opening shot that shows how good season two of Transparent will be.
The Pfeffermans are back in a gorgeous opening shot that shows how good season two of Transparent will be.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The second season is maybe the most important season of any TV show, as New York magazine's Matt Zoller Seitz recently pointed out. While a select few deepen and grow more assured in season two (current examples: The Leftovers, Fargo), TV history is littered with shows that simply unraveled, undone by an obsessive need to chase exactly what made season one so successful (current example: Empire).

It was tempting to expect the worst regarding Transparent, Amazon's tremendous dramedy about the ups and downs of southern California's Pfefferman family, and to prepare for it to fall into that latter category. So much of the show's flawless first season seemed like some sort of strange alchemy, impossible to understand from the outside; that sort of magic is usually hard to recapture.

Plus, season two piles on the storylines and the guest stars — two things that usually spell doom for a show that's trying to build off a successful first season. All of the warning signs were there for the second season to totally fall apart.

Yet it's a wonderful season of television, about which I'll have lots more to say once it officially launches on Friday, December 11. (I've seen the whole thing.) Transparent fans have lots to look forward to.

But this shouldn't be a surprise. The season two premiere has been available to stream for a couple of days now, and it not only reminds you of how good this show is in one episode — it reminds you of how good this show is in the episode's very first shot. Here are five reasons the opening shot of "Kina Hora" is one of the best things you'll see on TV all year.

1) It's cinematically audacious — without breaking the bank

Director Jill Soloway (who also created the show and wrote this episode) opens with a camera locked into a long shot, positioned just behind a wedding photographer. She doesn't move or even pan the camera. Instead, actors move into and out of frame as the wedding planner calls for various family members to gather for pictures.

Transparent shot
Here's a look at how the shot works (sped up slightly).

What's brilliant about this setup is how Soloway uses it to remind us that you don't need sweeping vistas or big special effects sequences to do something "cinematic" on TV. You just need a strong directorial vision and a consistent visual aesthetic. That's exactly what she has here, and throughout the episode, she'll return, again and again, to pulling the camera back from the action to just observe the Pfeffermans moving around in their element. It's almost as if she's asking us to frame the entire thing as a photograph — a memory that will fade with time until we look back at it someday and feel the memory return to us in an instant.

She isn't just establishing the setting — she's establishing the way she's going to tell this particular episode's story. Check out how "Kina Hora" ends, for instance:

2) It functions as a "previously on Transparent" segment while still respecting viewers' intelligence

This shot is a neat way to reintroduce the show's many characters and relationships, and it immediately centers the action on the wedding between Sarah (the oldest Pfefferman daughter) and her girlfriend, Tammy, while also offering a quick catch-up on the status of the other family members. Did you forget that, say, Josh discovered he had a son who had been given up for adoption in the season one finale? Well, now you'll be reminded!

Getting the audience caught up on what happened last season is a necessary evil that all season premieres must deal with. Transparent's method is as good a way of doing it as any I've seen.

3) It reminds you of the show's main themes and conflicts

The dramatic high point of the scene involves the photographer calling "Moppa" Maura Pfefferman — who spent most of her life living as a man but has since transitioned to being a woman — "sir." Maura checks with a few others to make sure she heard him correctly, then strides off; she no longer has any patience for those who don't respect her.

But what's interesting here is that Transparent doesn't portray this scenario as an instance of hate or outright bigotry. Sure, the photographer is probably influenced by some unexamined prejudices, but he mostly slips up, and when the wedding planner confronts him about it, he apologizes. People on Transparent always mean well, but they still do terrible things, sometimes without even thinking about it.

And while it's less pointed, the sequence also touches on the way the Pfeffermans' Jewishness affects their lives, and on how the ever-expanding definition of family includes more and more people as time goes on, including Josh's just-discovered son and even Tammy's two ex-wives. ("She's collecting us like lesbian Pokemon," one jokes.) On Transparent, family isn't a fixed, immutable thing. It's always a work in progress.

4) But it also subtly prepares you for the new ideas the show will explore in season two

Without spoiling what's ahead, I'll say that Maura's journey from her days as Mort to her current life is hugely important to the season's overall arc. And this opening scene sets the table for the way that her entire history as a person and as a member of the Pfefferman family has been leading her (and her children) to the moment that follows. The photographer's misgendering of Maura isn't just a quick reminder of her story arc — it also ties into the full season's considerations of private pain balanced against unearned privilege.

Lots and lots of stories have tried to catalog the small, intimate details of a particular family or group of characters, while also situating them in the grand sweep of history. Most have failed. Transparent, however, pulls off the trick as season two continues, and this opening shot offers just a quick hint at how the show opens up from a tiny story into one with historical and even global implications.

5) It's much, much funnier than anything we saw in season one

The standard beef against Transparent as the show has made its way around the awards circuit in the past year has been that it's "not a comedy," even though it's nominated as one at the Golden Globes and the Emmys. And, yes, in terms of pure laughs per minute, it pales in comparison to something like Veep or even a more traditional network sitcom like Fresh Off the Boat (which is airing a stellar second season right now).

But Transparent has never been lacking in laughs, and season two's opening sequence features lots of the family squabbling and clever dialogue that drives many of the show's best jokes. There are more big comedic set pieces in Transparent season two, and this is the first of them. Maybe it provokes wry chuckles more than big belly laughs, but, hey, funny is funny.

Transparent's second season launches December 11. You can watch "Kina Hora" and catch up on season one right now on Amazon Prime.

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