Damon Lindelof on ‘The Leftovers’: ‘I’m fighting for the life of the show’

HBO’s “The Leftovers” just concluded an incredible second season. (Here’s my review of the finale.) As a bookend to the long and candid conversation we had two months ago, I spoke with the series’ co-creator Damon Lindelof about many of the big decisions going into the finale, about all the hard work and tough choices required for a season this good, and his thoughts about the show’s precarious future, coming up just as soon as a temple closes on Christmas…

Let’s start with a meta question: why are we doing this interview? A year ago, you didn’t want to do any post-mortems. You wanted to let the show speak for itself. You did a bunch at the start of this season, you talked to Mo Ryan last week, and are doing a few like this for the finale. Why did you decide to be a little bit more out there this year?

Damon Lindelof: Interesting choice of words. I think what it all boils down to is I have to be as transparent and as honest as possible, which is, now I’m fighting for the life of the show. I think that if I were in a different scenario, I could be more precious about how much I talked about the show. But we live in a media climate where buzz is a very real thing, and if me giving an interview creates clicks or press or buzz in any way, then if the show doesn’t come back, I have to be in a position where I can say I did everything I could to propagate the life of the show. And that includes saying yes a little bit more often. I still want to try to limit the explanation aspect of the interviews: Explain this, explain that, what did you mean by? But just shutting the door and saying, “I’m not accessible and I’m not willing to talk about the show” is ultimately going to do more damage to the show.

That’s what I’m telling myself. The short answer might just be I have a huge ego and need to talk more.

So let’s talk about the future. Where do things stand, as far as you know, and what has to happen for a season 3 to exist?

Damon Lindelof: I don’t know what the answer to the last part is. I can guess at what those things are, but no one has told me what the rules are. I know that HBO is really happy with the creative of the show; they’ve been immensely supportive of what we wanted to do, and they’ve been highly collaborative and pleased with the results. That said, all of us have to take a pragmatic look at the numbers. HBO is not Netflix or Amazon. The numbers of the show are known, and the truth of the matter is that the ratings are down from season 1. If the show was always an underperformer, the little engine that could, and the trajectory was flat, or up or down a little bit, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now. The reality is, everybody felt that the show was ascending a bit, creatively and ratings-wise, towards the end of the season, and in the interim between the two seasons, we lost a lot of the audience coming into this year. That’s the situation that we’re in. The critical buzz, the critical response, and the fan response, has been much more positive this year than it was last year. And that matters; that’s important. But I think what would be great is if there were some kind of bump in the finale ratings. We actually saw an uptick in the ratings for episode 9, which I was surprised by, considering we were up against “The Walking Dead” mid-season finale and an incredible football game that I was watching and rooting for the Broncos. It would be great if that trajectory continued. It would probably be bad if we lost viewership from episode 9 to the finale. Any case that can be made for a show that is picking up momentum would be huge. But the reality is, I’m talking to HBO. We’re going to sit down before the holidays and get a sense of where everybody’s head is at. I certainly want to make more episodes of “The Leftovers.” That’s kind of how things sit.

Technically, when do the actors’ options lapse? That tends to be the drop-dead date for these kinds of decisions.

Damon Lindelof: I don’t know the specific answer to that question, but my understanding of it is that it’s somewhere in the February window. But my sense of it is – and I don’t want to put words in HBO’s mouth -that they don’t want to drag this out. I have a sense that we’ll have real clarity right around the new year, either before or shortly after. Obviously, the actors would want to take other projects, the writing staff, my own mental head space. And HBO, everything they’ll need to know, they’ll know by the new year.