'The Leftovers' Season 3: TV Review

The Leftovers S03E01 Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO
More mind-bending spiritual drama, this time Down Under.

Through six of its final eight episodes, Damon Lindelof's HBO drama is as baffling and intoxicating as ever and stars like Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon still shine.

To spend five or six consecutive hours watching HBO's The Leftovers, as I did ahead of the start of the show's third season on Sunday, is to find most other shows on TV looking small by comparison.

The Leftovers, which made a quantum qualitative leap from its first to second season and maintains that quality level through the first six of eight final season episodes, is a tremendous iceberg of a show on which one could write endlessly about just one or two calving chunks of interest and come nowhere near delving into even a small portion of what lurks underneath.

A review of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's increasingly expansive adaptation of Perrotta's novel could focus exclusively on the show's contrast between real places and imaginary spaces, the clash of new and fully experienced settings like Austin and, in the third season, Melbourne, Australia, versus artificial hotel environments as depicted so memorably in episodes like "Guest" or "International Assassin." Several third-season episodes are set in troublingly sterile luxury accommodations in different cities, forcing us to confront how a show that started with a Sudden Departure is also about where we find ourselves upon arrival.

A review of the third season of The Leftovers could probably focus exclusively on musical cues and needle drops in the series, including the transition from Max Richter's original score to Iris DeMent's "Let the Mystery Be" to a hodgepodge of songs over the current opening credits. The second episode of the third season features no fewer than three musical moments that left me clapping in my seat and that only a criminal would spoil. So many shows use music just to underline or force emotional moments, but The Leftovers selects songs as ironic counterpoint, as too-obvious symbolism, as jarring secondary intellectual layer and sometimes as something in-between. All I'm saying is that the non-Jewishly-inclined might want to research the "Avinu Malkeinu" prayer that's part of the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur liturgy at some point in the next month, because it's relevant. And one could ponder whether Lindelof and Noah Hawley have some sort of pact that requires each to let the other know when they're planning on using some semi-obscure French track so that they don't (or so that they do) overlap.

A review of the third season of The Leftovers could eschew talking about the show's treatment of grief and sorrow and the search for meaning amid tragedy to ponder the idea of spiritual appropriation, how the series has adopted threads from different Christian denominations and how the third season expands with Jewishness — again, give a listen to a recording of "Avinu Malkeinu" — and Australian aboriginal practices. 

Or a review of the show's third season could really just be a review of The Last Wave, the 1977 apocalyptic Peter Weir film that has emerged as something of an urtext here, with much of the action shifting to Australia and Lindelof going so far as to cast Last Wave co-star David Gulpilil in a supporting role to advance the point.

To write about The Leftovers at all is to inevitably be resigned to failure at the myriad things you're not writing about.

It's good that there's so much to say about the show, because there's just as much that I'm sure Lindelof and HBO would prefer that critics not discuss about the last eight episodes.

What can I "spoil"?

After a two-part opening, one piece set in 1844, the third season jumps ahead in time by three years. The seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure is coming and Miracle, Texas, is overflowing with pilgrims hoping that if anything important is about to happen, they'll be at Ground Zero. Emphasizing the integral role of the number seven in the Bible, Matt (Christopher Eccelston) is telling his flock to maybe possibly expect something big. Holding a new official job in Miracle, Kevin (Justin Theroux) is skeptical, as is Nora (Carrie Coon), who also has a new gig. Kevin's skepticism is accompanied by ample distraction, as he's haunted by his beyond-near-death experiences from last season and visited by an old friend who reminds him and us of his previous mental instability. Also making their way in Miracle are various Murphys, whom we met last season, including John (Kevin Carroll) and Michael (Jovan Adepo), plus Kevin's ex, Laurie (Amy Brenneman).

HBO has built much of the promotion for the third season around the move to Australia, which isn't immediate, but brings into play a few new characters like Lindsay Duncan's Grace and brings back Scott Glenn's Kevin Sr. in his most substantial capacity yet.

It would actually spoil none of the pleasure of The Leftovers to recount the progression of the plot as the Sudden Departure anniversary is approaching, but it would be a reminder that the series is at its least interesting when it's at its most literal. That's part of why most viewers with a desperate need for "answers" probably tuned out early in the erratic-but-sometimes-great first season. There's only so many times that Lindelof and his various writers and co-writers can come out and tell you that answers would be disappointing or partial or hollow and if it doesn't sink in, this just won't be a show for you.

Often the literal things that happen on the show might briefly seem thinly motivated or illogical or contrived, and there's usually around five seconds to worry about that before it jars you out of that mode of viewership and into something more absurd or hallucinatory. The specifics of that trippy mindfery are what make the show great and also what I wouldn't dare spoil, unlike a plotline that I might summarize parochially as "Upon arrival in Melbourne, Kevin takes an interest in a local morning television show" or something.

You can't get away with the things The Leftovers gets away with if you don't have one of the best and most committed ensembles on television, a cast so superior that you almost can't lament when somebody like a Regina King or Ann Dowd or Margaret Qualley is either gone or around less frequently (because nobody on the series could ever necessarily be gone for good).

Theroux, playing Kevin's fraying sense of his own mental well-being like an exposed nerve, remains an anchor, and the show remains devoted to crafting showcase episodes for his co-stars. Sometimes you can guess immediately which actor is getting the spotlight, like how Eccelston shines in the particularly mad episode titled "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World," but there's also pleasure in the gradual realization of when a Glenn or Brenneman is about to spend 55 minutes wowing you. There are also times that the deep directing stable gets to strut a little bit extra, like Mimi Leder's time-bending work on the premiere or the frantic intensity that Daniel Sackheim brings to the first Melbourne episode or Nicole Kassell's Fellini-esque hour featuring an orgy, wild animals and a divine presence.

Coon deserves her own paragraph, because starting this week she'll be a regular on new seasons of both The Leftovers and Fargo, a simultaneous prestige double one might compare to Elisabeth Moss having episodes of Top of the Lake and Mad Men in the spring of 2013, or when Heather Locklear got to be a regular on both Dynasty and T.J. Hooker. Coon is the tortured soul of The Leftovers, but a surprising amount of the time she's also its leading source of dark humor. Her performance in the season's second episode is on par with her focal role in "Guest," but she's superior throughout, because Nora isn't doing all that well in the third season. Viewers have eight weeks to see Coon on both Sunday and Wednesday nights, and I hope they take this opportunity to really appreciate her.

They'll be able to continue to watch Coon work even after this spring double is complete, but time is running out to get on the Leftovers bandwagon. I understand why some fickle viewers tuned out in the first season and I'm not sure those departed would like where the show has gone, anyway. Countless others, however, are missing out on a show that isn't about easy answers, but definitely is about some of the best acting, directing and ephemeral atmosphere on television. There's so much to say about every episode of The Leftovers, much less to say about the first six episodes of a new season collectively, but the easiest thing to say is that it's not too late to tune in and be awed and confused.

Cast: Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, Chris Zylka, Scott Glenn, Jovan Adepo, Kevin Carroll
Showrunner: Damon Lindelof
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)