In the third episode of the third season of Transparent, Ali and Sarah Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffman and Amy Landecker) find a turtle in their childhood home during a game of hide-and-seek — a pet that had been given to the Pfefferman children nearly 30 years earlier. All that time it was slinking through the house’s ducts, watching through the grates as Ali tried pot for the first time and Josh lost his virginity to his babysitter, Rita. They assumed it was lost forever, but it was there all along.
In the first three episodes of Transparent’s third season, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, the Pfeffermans are still searching. Ali is working for her professor-slash-lover, Leslie (Cherry Jones) as a teaching assistant, leading a seminar on “historical memory and feminist dystopia.” Sarah is embracing religion and attempting to join the synagogue board — even as she continues to pony up for regular bottom-lashings, her favorite form of therapy, and has moved back in with her ex-husband and children.
Josh (Jay Duplass) has started his own music label, housed in an uber-hip L.A. warehouse, but seems practically numb with melancholy after his breakup with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) last season. He’s living in his palatial childhood home with Ali, who’s renting out her apartment through Airbnb. And Shelly (Judith Light) gives a talk at the synagogue that inspires her to write an autobiographical one-woman show called “To Shell and Back.” As she triumphantly declares, “I have emerged from the swamp pit of mishegas.”
The first episode of the new season, which will be available on Amazon Prime on Sept. 23, functions like a prelude: It focuses almost entirely on Maura, with the Pfefferman children absent. The episode opens in the empty synagogue, where Raquel is rehearsing her sermon for Passover, and is punctuated by Raquel’s words, which we hear in voiceover as she hikes through the woods throughout the premiere. “To keep yourself warm,” she intones, “you retell your story of escape.”
Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) spends the first episode literally searching for a young trans girl, Elizah (Alexandra Grey), who calls the LGBTQ crisis line where Maura is volunteering and hangs up in distress. Worried that she may hurt herself, Maura tracks her down at an indoor flea market in South L.A. — a world away from the tony Pacific Palisades neighborhood where the Pfeffermans grew up. Disoriented and dehydrated, Maura faints and, to her absolute horror, is taken to the county hospital — where her name is recorded as “Feffman,” and the nurse has circled “m” instead of “f” on the whiteboard above her bed.
The first episode has fewer laughs than the following two; when the Pfefferman siblings show up at the hospital in the second episode (“I need to be airlifted to Cedars-Sinai,” Maura insists), their juvenile bickering and complaints of the hospital’s smell immediately change the tone. There are a few memorable guest appearances by L.A. comedians J.B. Smoove, Sabrina Jalees, and Nathan Fielder; Caitlyn Jenner pops up in a dream sequence when Ali takes nitrous at the dentist and imagines herself as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
Judging from the first batch of episodes, Season 3 seems to be an attempt to answer the question, “Now what?” Maura has come out to her family; Josh and Raquel have broken up; Ali has taken a step forward in her career; Sarah has accepted herself as bisexual; Shelly has found another man. Maura and Vicki (Anjelica Huston) are still together, and her family has supported her transition. “I got everything I need,” she tells her housemate, Davina (Alexandra Billings). “So why am I so unhappy?”
Davina’s answer is that Maura needs to listen to her body. So she gets herself a chic new hairdo, and tells her family, gathered at a birthday dinner, that she plans to transition medically: “Face, breasts, vagina.” (This prompts a very funny little scene in which the Pfefferman siblings contemplate the notion of “dad’s pussy.”)
As the Transparent clan continues to search for freedom — physical, spiritual, and psychological — it’s telling how the different generations approach that voyage. Maura and Shelly journey headlong into an unknown but exciting future, while their three grown children journey backward, to the familiar comfort of the past: Ali and Josh in their childhood home, Sarah back in her and her ex-husband’s house, even though they’re split up.
In the bible, Passover is a celebration of God liberating the Jews from slavery in Egypt. But, Raquel ponders in the first episode, “What if you had to be your own messiah? Then what?” The spirit of “then what” infuses these episodes of Transparent, which in its third season suggests that life is one long transition.