'The Leftovers' Season 2: TV Review

Haven't you learned by now not to expect answers?

Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's HBO drama returns for season two, and it's even more enticing — and alienating — than before.

Say farewell to the imposing strings, floating babies and fiercely slurping wormhole in the sky, because HBO's The Leftovers has a new opening credits sequence.

Instead, fresh disappearance imagery has been set to Iris DeMent's "Let the Mystery Be," a sentiment that sounds almost absurdly on-the-nose coming from The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof, who has been leading a crusade against the necessity of answers since his days on Lost. (This isn't to say that Lost didn't answer many or most or, if you're generous, all of its big questions, but Lindelof often bristled at the imperative behind the need for those answers.)

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The Leftovers was instigated by an event that took place partially on-screen, followed by a three year time jump. The result was that the disappearance of two percent of the world's population shifted from a "What the heck happened?" question to a "How do we live our lives now that we've accepted that we may never know what the heck happened?" question. Yes, within the world of The Leftovers there are still people trying to uncover the nature of the Sudden Departure, but every character we're supposed to care about is willing to just let the mystery be. They're not comfortable with the mystery, but The Leftovers is fundamentally a show about learning to make accommodations for discomfort, whether it's the tragic discomfort of losing loved ones or nail-biting discomfort of not knowing for sure if the first Departure will be the only departure. What do you do when the fundamental tenets of your existence have been disrupted and you can't do anything? Do you descend into nihilism? Do you find confirmation of faith? Do you pretend that you're unchanged?

Focusing initially on aftermath in a small bedroom community in New York, The Leftovers spent its first season with the Garveys, including unmoored police chief Kevin (Justin Theroux), unsteady daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and son Tommy (Chris Zylka) and mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who found themselves enticed by two very different cults. Moving into their sphere was Carrie Coon's Nora, whose Departure experience left her a particular object of pity.

After 10 episodes of misery, upheaval and alienation from the lives they used to live, The Leftovers ended its first season on a conflicted note that was perfectly optimistic and miserable. Naturally, Sunday (Oct. 4) night's second-season premiere takes everything you thought you understood about The Leftovers and scraps it. A prologue, which intriguingly echoes Kubrick's 2001, on one hand shoves audiences back into this universe blindfolded, but practically forces an engaged viewer to play a little game called, "What's the thematic purpose behind this?" If you don't want to play, you probably didn't especially like The Leftovers anyway. If you revel in the puzzle, it becomes almost a relief when things settle into at least semi-recognizable routines in Jarden, a Texas town that lost no residents to the Departure. Because of what is being sold as a miracle, Jarden has rebranded itself as a spiritual theme park, complete with church services, a souvenir market and a new set of acceptable behaviors.

My own favorite part of The Leftovers is that hard sci-fi soul in which you're invited into a "What if?" scenario complete with foreign rules and rather than putting the rules up on a wall somewhere and letting viewers read them, you're required to learn and adapt on the fly. Mapleton, New York had one set of rules, but what's happening in Jarden is uncharted and, again, foreign.

Because of Lindelof's past, I'm inclined to compare the transition to Jarden to the Lost introduction of the Tailies. We spent a season getting to understand how one group of survivors was handling an untenable situation and then we were promptly confronted with the idea that an entirely different group of survivors had been faced a parallel set of misfortune in their own way. The Departure impacted the world, but it'd be folly to imagine it impacting every region and culture and socio-economic group in the same way and not only was the full immersion of the second-season premiere perhaps my favorite Leftovers episode yet, but it also made me excited about the premiere of the third season and the seventh season and the hundredth season. If the first season of The Leftovers sometimes felt insular, the second premiere instantly proves that the show is actually boundless.

Just as the first-season cast balanced prickliness and empathy, it's easy to get into the Jarden version of the story because of the Murphys, a family led by the terrific Kevin Carroll and newly minted Emmy winner Regina King. They're no more comfortable with the post-departure world than the Garveys were and their reactions are as uncomfortable to follow. After two-thirds of an episode of the Murphys, I was prepared to spend a season with only them, but that's when the Garveys enter this story.

Last season's clear highlights were the episodes that honed in on Nora — Coon's Emmy snub this fall remains a travesty — and Nora's brother, Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston). Season two is off to a great start because after a Murphy-centric first episode, the Garveys are featured in a second episode that nests with the first. The third episode, heavy on Laurie and Tom, fills in narrative gaps of its own.

Should this pattern continue, it would speak to Lindelof and original novel author Tom Perrotta's ability to adapt the story to make it better, if not more accessible, because that's how I'd describe the show's progression. The Leftovers remains a show that defies a warm and wide embrace. Every performance is superlative, including the teen and young adult actors and roles, often the bane of cable drama. There are moments of humor, but even the laughs are sometimes bleak and painful. The show has instances of high-art aspiration that practically beg less-than-wholly-involved viewers to roll their eyes. Even though I was a fan of the first season, I wasn't always on-board with every moment, but at least through three episodes, I'm locked in for season two.

Just don't expect answers and let the mystery be.

 

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