Review: ‘The Leftovers’ is still TV’s best drama as season 2 begins

In an upcoming episode of “The Leftovers,” a book publisher considers a manuscript one of the HBO drama's main characters has written about the violent, unsettling events viewers saw last season.

“There's some heartbreaking stuff in here,” the publisher acknowledges, but he feels the writing is too dry, even as it recounts stories of death, loss, heartache, and all the complications of living in a world where, a few years earlier, two percent of the world's population vanished into thin air under circumstances that have baffled modern science and organized religion.

“If you want them to connect with it,” he tells his prospective author, “you have to tell them how it felt.”

Telling its audience how things feel is not a problem that “The Leftovers” itself suffers from in the slightest. In its first year, the show, adapted from Tom Perrotta's novel by Perrotta and “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof, was incredibly polarizing: decried in some corners as misery porn, or as another Lindelof exercise in baiting the audience with mysteries he has no intention of solving, but seized upon by many viewers (I called it the best TV show of 2014) as a stunning and incredibly powerful work of art about grief, madness, and continuing to function in a world that increasingly makes no sense. But it made everyone who watched it feel something, whether that was rage or rapture.

It's a show that was, and is, obsessed with matters spiritual – Was the Sudden Departure an act of God? And if not, does God as people understand Him exist at all? – and thus it's appropriate that talking about it with someone who doesn't enjoy it is about as useful as describing faith to an atheist: no matter how articulate the words, the connection's either there or it isn't.

But after talking to a few fellow critics who were non-believers a year ago, but who said they were pleasantly surprised by the first three episodes of the new season (it debuts Sunday night at 9), I suspect “The Leftovers” may be ready to attract some new converts. It remains an overwhelming experience, but one that has figured out how to amplify the most potent elements of season 1 while tightening up or simply abandoning the parts that worked least.

Lindelof doesn't want to call this a reboot – the show was too great to need one – but in moving beyond the plot of Perrotta's novel, season 2 feels thrillingly new, and improved in all the best ways. Even leaving aside the completely bonkers, yet beautiful, prologue to Sunday's season premiere(*), we are in a new location, with new characters (the premiere is more than halfway over before we see a single familiar face) and a new set of storytelling rules.

(*) The less said in advance about the prologue, the better. But it's another sign of a show unafraid to take the biggest of swings, regardless of how it might look if it misses. (To this baseball fan, this particular swing decidedly connects.)

The series relocates for the most part from suburban New York to Jarden, a small Texas town that somehow didn't see a single individual vanish during the Departure. As a result, Jarden has become a mecca for the deeply religious, for the frightened, and for the lost – the latter category covering many of last season's main characters, including possibly crazy ex-cop Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), and Kevin's new love interest Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose husband and young children all Departed over breakfast while her back was turned.

Those three eventually turn up in the premiere, but the episode's focus is on a family native to Jarden, the Murphys, led by firefighter John (Kevin Carroll) and doctor Erika (Regina King). When we see Kevin and his makeshift new clan in the episode, it's entirely from the perspective of their new neighbors.

It's a smart way to orient the audience to the changed location – while also making us feel disoriented, because the Murphys know much more about the strange rules of life in Jarden (which has become part of a larger national park called Miracle) than we do – but it's also an expansion of the structure of two of the first season's best episodes: one told entirely from Nora's point of view, the other from the POV of her preacher brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston). Because “The Leftovers” is so driven to capture the feeling of living in its broken world, it becomes more effective the tighter its focus becomes. Doing a season's worth of single-character studies might be untenable (I adore the show, but 10 hours with as much emotional wallop as the Nora-centric “Guest” would render me catatonic), so instead Lindelof, Perrotta, and company have done the next best thing: each episode, even if it features a large portion of the show's cast, is told from the POV of only a specific subset of them. So the premiere is the story of the Murphys, even though the Garveys appear, episode 2 reverses that equation, while episode 3 heads back to New York to catch up with Kevin's ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) and son Tommy (Chris Zylka) as they try to move on after each falling under the sway of the religious cults that sprung up in the Departure's aftermath.

Each episode hits harder as a result, while the narrative has gotten tighter. It's still a show defined more by emotion than plot, but structuring it this way – and moving most of the action to Jarden, which has many mysteries of its own – creates a sense of more momentum, rather than a bunch of characters wandering around in a daze.

That element hasn't gone away – when Jill asks Tommy why she can't tell their dad that he's okay, he replies, “'Cause nobody's okay” – but the chain-smoking Guilty Remnant doomsday cult (by far the aspect of season 1 most often denounced by “Leftovers” opponents) has moved into the background a bit, and the other characters are making more of an effort to get on with their lives, even as fresh fears arise that the Departure wasn't a one-time event. (Nora asks a scientist whether it could happen again; he replies, matter-of-factly, “Why wouldn't it?”) People smile now and again, and they actually open up to each other about some of their darkest burdens – there's a hilarious scene between Kevin, Nora, and Jill that's basically the opposite of all those “Lost” moments where you wanted to scream at the characters for not telling each other what they've been through – but the hurt remains, and is still magnificently conveyed by these fine actors, whether returnees like the incredible Carrie Coon or newcomers like Carroll and King (a recent Emmy winner for her work on “American Crime”).

Shifting production from the Hudson Valley to Austin hasn't robbed the show of the immersive quality that comes as much from Mimi Leder and the show's other directors as it does from Lindelof, Perrotta, and the writing staff. The alternate reality the show has created is packed with the kind of casual but unsettling details – particularly in the ways that characters in “The Leftovers”-verse shrug off things that would horrify us – to which so many sci-fi shows aspire with their world-building, but which few succeed at. The score by Max Richter, the use of popular music (a Pixies song here, a Buddy Rich drum duel there), and the overall soundscape of the show create a sense that you are there, trapped in the broken world right along with Kevin, Nora, and everyone else.

Then again, maybe what's so potent about the show – even more now that it's tweaked its structure – is the way that its world and ours don't feel all that different. No, we haven't been witness to a global metaphysical calamity, but watch the news for more than five minutes in a given week, and our reality can start to feel just as out of whack as the one that's slowly driving Kevin Garvey insane. I watched the new season's first three episodes on 9/11, as much as a distraction from all the usual memorial coverage as a desire to reconnect with TV's best drama, and there was a character complaining about how easily their world has moved on from its defining event.

“Everyone walks around like nothing happened,” she complains. “Stuff they care about, it feels so stupid sometimes.”

In that moment, she's referring to the Sudden Departure, but she could just as easily be talking about the towers falling, or Newtown, or Charleston, or Ferguson, or any other event that shakes our faith in humanity for five minutes before we go back to checking Twitter. “The Leftovers” is about moving on after loss, and even though some of the show's characters, old and new, lost no one in the Departure, they feel the ache, and the confusion, and the desperate need to rewind to a time before it all happened – and it's a feeling the show captures and conveys in a way that feels just as applicable to our world as theirs.

HBO's greatest dramas all arrived looking like simple genre pieces, when really they were using the familiar trappings of a mob drama, or a crime story, or a Western, as a Trojan Horse from which they could comment on much grander questions about life, the universe, and everything. “The Leftovers” is operating in the same way, and though it's far more divisive than “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” or “Deadwood,” I often feel the same intense levels of dread, and empathy, and sheer joy at the audacity of the storytelling that I did watching those classics.

It's never going to connect with everyone, but the creative team is putting in a sincere effort to make the show slightly more accessible without taking away everything that resonated with the faithful last season. They've even done away with one of its more obvious missteps: an overwrought title sequence that presented scenes of suburbia being disrupted by the Departure as if they were Renaissance cathedral paintings, which tried and failed to be grandiose and playful at once. In its place is a new montage of images that get the same point across, but in a way that far better conveys the show's spirit of being just like the world outside your window.

And the new theme song (actually a familiar folk tune by Iris DeMent) playfully tries to once and for all address the concerns of people who insist there must be an explanation for the Sudden Departure, despite ample argument from Lindelof and the show itself that “The Leftovers” isn't interested in why it happened, but what it feels like to have lived through it:

Everybody's wonderin' what and where
They all came from
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
When the whole thing's done
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me
I think I'll just let the mystery be

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at