HBO’s Divisive ‘The Leftovers’ Tries For A Fresh Start In Season Two

Many a Leftovers viewer departed sometime during the polarizing HBO drama’s first season. Their grievances with the series — which, for its first 10 episodes, followed the Mapleton, N.Y. survivors of an unexplained global event that wiped out two percent of the world’s population — ranged from its irrepressible nihilism to its slow-motion plot development to its litany of unsolved mysteries, specifically the central one (i.e., all the calling cards of Damon Lindelof, who co-created the series with Tom Perrotta, working from Perrotta’s novel). The naysayers believed The Leftovers both too meandering and too marginal, too inscrutable and too obvious, a show that regularly sledgehammered its audience over the head with tortured metaphors (that whole rabid-deer-tears-up-a-school thing) and overly expository plot devices (how many dream sequences did we really need, Damon?).

Those of us left behind, though, saw The Leftovers‘ potential, the audacious and groundbreaking series that, at its very best, it was capable of being. For all of those aforementioned and arguable flaws, the show refused to pander to its audience by offering easy answers or comforting platitudes. When it was good, it was a dark meditation on grief and mortality, a story about human adaptability and faith (or lack thereof), one that chewed endlessly on existential quandaries versus neatly tying up tangible mysteries. There was sharp dialogue; moody, pitch-perfect music and cinematography; committed, profoundly sweaty acting; and fully wrought characters—hallucination-prone police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his ex-wife and de facto cult leader Laurie (Amy Brenneman), his similarly brainwashed son Tom (Chris Zylka), his refrigerator-frequenting daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), his haunted lover Nora (the inimitable Carrie Coon), and his pal Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston), the type of God-fearing guy who’d bury a body with you, then go for cheeseburgers.

And yes, all of these things were regularly dwarfed by some serious hot messiness. But what kept us Leftovers leftovers (…sorry) going in the face of much Lindelofian adversity was the belief that it would keep getting better. Just as Kevin continued to patiently hurl steaks at the feral dog he’d chained to his deck in hopes that the canine might one day chill out, we continued to patiently wait for The Leftovers to calm down, to get a handle on what exactly it wanted to be, and to make us so happy that we’d never have to leave our homes or speak to another human being again. Such is the platonic ideal of good TV.

It did get better, in certain ways, gaining confidence and momentum as it approached its blowout season finale. And perhaps we Leftovers apologists are naïve to think it’ll continue to improve. But the first three episodes of the second season, which premieres Sunday night, suggests that this is, in fact, the case. For those who’ve managed to stick around — and for those willing to give it a second chance — the new season is something of a mea culpa, an admission of guilt and a promise of redemption.

“We’ve changed,” Lindelof seems to be shouting. “Come back to us. It’ll be different this time, we swear.”

And changed The Leftovers has. Season two occupies some nebulous space between a reboot and a revival and whatever other suffix you’d like to tack on. Lindelof and Perrotta have held on to what works — the stable of main characters, the pervasive bleakness and unknowability, Max Richter’s chilling score — and changed nearly everything else. The Leftovers has exited morose Mapleton and relocated to Jarden, Texas, the only town in the country that boasts zero Departures; as such, frightened folks from across the country are flocking to it. Kevin and his new pseudo-nuclear family — Nora, a newly tranquil Jill, and the adorable baby Tom left on their doorstep — plus Matt and his questionably catatonic wife Mary (Janel Moloney) are among them, having picked up and moved to the small town to find something resembling a sense of safety.

But we hardly see the Garveys 2.0 in the first episode. In fact, for the first 10 minutes or so, all we see is a family of prehistoric cave people and the various, tragic fates that befall them. It’s a bold, baffling intro, one that’s not quite explained within the context of the series (at least not yet). But it works. Its message, though opaque, is in line with what Lindelof’s been trying to say all along: Fate has always been random and cruel. Bad things have always happened to people who are just trying to do their best. And nobody’s been able to figure out why, not since the beginning of time. So why do you — the titular Leftovers, but also the show’s audience — think you’re special enough to deserve an explanation?

The series’ new opening sequence delivers a similar message, discarding the mawkish Renaissance-church-ceiling intro of yore and replacing it with a series of photos of happy families, couples, and kids, unremarkable except for the gaping, human-shaped holes within them. The new montage is set to Iris Dement’s folksy “Let The Mystery Be.” In other words, Lindelof seems to be saying, “Stop asking why the Departure happened. That’s not the point, and you’re all annoying me.”

The rest of episode one is more self-assured and accessible than wide swaths of last season. Post-cave sequence, we re-enter the modern world and meet the Murphys, Jarden natives who present like a bizarro-world Garvey family that stuck together rather than scattered to the wind. There’s matriarch Erika (Regina King), who appears to be holding it all together until she goes for a frantic run into the forest to dig up a mysterious box; firefighter-dad-with-a-dark-side John (Kevin Carroll), who tends to snap on the job like our favorite police chief; and a pair of teen siblings with some strange, potentially cult-related secrets of their own (Jovan Adepo and Jasmin Savoy Brown). We stick with the multidimensional Murphys for the duration of the episode, watching them search for a cricket that’s ostensibly been hiding in their home for months (shades of Kevin’s white shirts and itinerant bagel here) and blatantly lie to each other’s faces on their way to doing weird things around town.

The tight focus is a welcome shift from the sprawling narratives of season one. This is what The Leftovers has always done best — the most affecting episodes thus far were those told from Nora and Matt’s singular perspectives. The narrow structure means more urgency and action and less aimless wandering, richer character development and fewer scenes where everybody’s just sort of moping ad infinitum. When we finally do get a glimpse of the Garveys as they move into the house next door to the Murphys, the sensation is not unlike that of seeing the very first Sim you ever created wander past the house of the family you’re currently playing with — wistful, warm, off-putting, a little embarrassing (what’s with the lame wave, Kev?).

As the episode unfolds, we learn that the Murphy’s holy hometown isn’t what it seems, either. In fact, it’s almost Lynchian in its duplicity. Sure, there are teens selling racks of “Miracle, Texas” T-shirts in the town square, sunning themselves by the lake, showing up to deliver sermons at church, and, inexplicably, watering the lawn in wedding gowns (…couldn’t it wait?). But much of this good cheer is performative. There’s something sinister at play in Jarden, something that inspires these same teens to run naked through the forest when they’re supposedly having sleepovers, that causes the sidewalks to shake and, as one cordoned-off street suggests, crack open.

Okay, so The Leftovers hasn’t gotten rid of those on-the-nose metaphors entirely. But remember, according to The Laws Of Lindelof, no matter how shiny the surface, something f*cked up is always lurking beneath, threatening to shatter it to pieces. And, indeed, by the end of episode one, an event has already occurred that fractures the very ethos of Jarden and punctures the Murphy’s fragile, false contentment.

Such is the gospel of The Leftovers, after all: suffering is the human condition, a universal and inevitable truth, whether you’re a pregnant cavewoman or a teenager just trying to party in the woods. This was a near-suffocating theme in season one, but season two advances the same notion in a way that’s smarter, more engaging, and less emotionally exhausting. Lindelof and co. appear to have gotten a better handle on the show’s voice by swapping out fire-scorched streets in New York for tremulous sidewalks in Texas. As for whether they can keep the quality up, well, we’ll just have to keep patiently waiting. As one character puts it in a later episode, “I spent the weeks after the Departure just waiting. I’m still waiting. We all are.”