[This is a review of The Leftovers season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
In its first season, The Leftovers was found to be a decidedly divisive affair. Some viewers were turned off by its depiction of a grief-stricken world turned upside down by an unanswerable event in which two percent of the earth's population disappeared in the blink of an eye. Despite the beautiful sadness of it all, and the emotional complexity of its characters, headed up by Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, and Amy Brenneman, it was understandable why some people couldn’t commit to a weekly series that was, even during its emotional high points, a show ostensibly about grief and depression.
But for everyone who wasn't able to get through the first season, or perhaps figured they didn't need another trip to the world created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (from whose novel the series is based), season 2 has undergone a significant change, one that offers a remarkably smart and fresh take on the ideas central to the series, while remaining true to the series itself. You will probably hear terms like "soft reboot" and "sequel" being applied to season 2 in light of these admittedly dramatic changes, and they're not wrong, necessarily, but they also don't exactly do it justice, either.
What's going on in season 2 feels wholeheartedly like a continuation of the events of season 1 – and a logical continuation at that. But it is at times difficult to tell if the reaction people will have to it is because the setting has changed so much, or if it is because Lindelof and Perrotta have so cleverly figured out how to continue the story, and continue to encourage an emotional response in their audience without doubling down on the grief. If anything, The Leftovers season 2 is made remarkable (from its new title sequence on) because it employs a deceptively lighter hand.
I say, "deceptively" because the series is still prone to taking huge risks in the name of emotional resonance. What's interesting is that the risk doesn't feel as potentially damning. Maybe that's due to this being the second season, and so the fear of what sort of first impression the show will make is so far in the rearview it's not even worth thinking about. That's definitely the impression one gets in the bold and bizarre opening sequence that underlines some of the show's most basic tenets, while also serving as a terrifically offbeat way of introducing the new setting.
As was described in the promos for the new season, The Leftovers has moved from suburban New York to the fictional town of Jarden, Texas – which seems to be somewhere in the vicinity of Austin. But this relocation isn't just to get away from what felt like the irrepressible cold of a seemingly endless New York winter. There's a larger purpose to the show's new digs; one that maintains the tonal and thematic qualities of the series, while also introducing some of its own mysteries that, naturally, may or may not have answers to them.
Now this could very well be an element which turned many people off: the idea the viewers, as the song accompanying the new title sequence suggests, should just "let the mystery be." And that's completely understandable for those watching to want answers, but this has never been a show concerned with providing them. If it was about solving the mystery of the departed, then yes, the delay could feel like baiting. But the series has been upfront about its intentions to remain focused on depicting the emotional and psychological fallout of the Sudden Departure. The show specifically asks what it was like to have gone through such an experience, only to come out the other side with absolutely no answers. This allows the show to ride a very specific emotional wavelength as its story unfolds, rather than drive toward an end goal or plot resolution.
One of the ways the series continues to ride this emotional wavelength is by shifting the perspective. For those who remember, season 1 was marked by two key episodes; one focusing entirely on Christopher Eccleston's Matt and another on his sister Nora. While the first was fantastic, the second, 'Guest,' was an incredible episode that hit like an emotional haymaker. These episodes restricted the focus to a single person's point of view, and clearly Lindelof and Perrotta took note of how well that worked. As a series whose intent seems to be eliciting a reaction, these episodes demonstrated how the more specific the focus, the greater the potential response.
But rather than have each episode narrow its focus down to one person, the series simply tells episodic stories from differing perspectives. And to get the audience ready for it, the premiere is told entirely from the perspective of new characters. Here, The Leftovers introduces the Murphys, headed up by John (Kevin Carroll) and Erika (the Emmy-winning Regina King), and their two kids, Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Yvette (Jasmin Savoy Brown).
As is the case with a show like this, the family appears distinctly unremarkable until, after a few scenes and after a few layers have been peeled away, they reveal themselves to be anything but. And in that way, they are the perfect introduction to Jarden, a town that did not suffer a single loss in the Departure, and has subsequently become a national park, a place where the spiritual and the scared come seeking either solace or protection. The episode is almost half over before the improvised Garvey family arrives and moves in next door to the Murphys. It is here The Leftovers makes such good use of its emotional baggage. By thrusting together two families with wildly different experiences of the Sudden Departure, it becomes clear how universal the moment was, how it transcended everything that separates people and how it united them in a way everyone is really already united.
It is a fascinating start to a new season promising big, meaningful changes. The series is still about grief and anger and depression, but it manages to explore these themes in a way that feels accessible to a broader range of personalities. The changes to The Leftovers in season 2 aren't likely going to convince everyone to tune in, but they certainly to demonstrate how a series that is one of HBO's strongest dramas has become serious about becoming its best.
The Leftovers continues next Sunday with 'A Matter of Geography' @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Van Redin/HBO