As I sat, slack-jawed, in my office last week, watching the opening of The Leftovers Season 2, it was hard to shake the feeling that I was being trolled. A prehistoric pregnancy? Raw eggs and snake bites? A fucking portentous bird? After spending the bulk of The Leftovers’ first season choking on secondhand smoke and railing against the series’ irritating tendency to use sweeping, metaphorical gestures as a stand-in for recognizable human behavior, the manner in which showrunner Damon Lindelof chose to welcome viewers back to his grim, fictional world felt as subtle and inviting as a shard of glass to the jugular. Adding to the insult was the fact that all reports leading up to last night’s debut had been so encouraging: The dead weight in the cast had been jettisoned, production had moved from the wintry depths of upstate New York to the harsh, bright light of Texas. I had found myself filled with the optimism that only a fresh season of television can provide: That past mistakes could be rewritten, that a disappointing show could become great. After all that, to be greeted with a hot blast of crazy-making indulgence was like a slap in the face.
So what a relief it was to learn, as I did last night, that I absolutely was being trolled. “There was a lot of ‘Oh, Greenwald’s gonna love this’ going around in the writers’ room,” Lindelof told Vulture‘s Joe Adalian when asked about the decision to start Season 2 on such rocky and venomous ground. To be clear, I think Lindelof was joking. Not even my ego will allow me to consider the idea that the opening moments of a multimillion-dollar production were personally tailored, like a bespoke suit, to “completely and totally” piss me off. But as Lindelof says elsewhere in that same interview, “writers use jokes to reflect pain.” So let’s ditch the mirror for a second: The message sent by that muddy opening wasn’t directed at me specifically, but it was meant for any of my fellow doubters. Rather than build a bridge to those turned off by The Leftovers’ first season, Lindelof will use his capital — creative, financial, and otherwise — to improve the imposing tower he’s already begun to construct.
I’d say “message received” and click off the TV there. But the truth of the matter is that, Clan of the Collapsed Cave Bear aside, there’s no question that The Leftovers was much improved last night. The narrative was sharp and lively, the world-building was imaginative and bold. Gone for good are the anodyne snowdrifts of Mapleton, replaced with the unsettling — literally: there are constant earthquakes — positivity of Jarden. If last year thrust us into a community ravaged by loss, this season embeds us in a place befuddled by good fortune. Jarden is a small town that was completely spared by the Sudden Departure and, in the years since, it has been transformed: A national park, called Miracle, has been established upon it. Religious pilgrims of all stripes flock to its borders. And residents enrich themselves by selling the local reservoir water to tourists and predicting their fortunes.
That All Is Not As It Seems is a given, of course. Lottery winners can behave as erratically as those overcome by grief. Still, the Murphys — our POV family for this new locale — are a welcome respite from the Fighting Garveys of Season 1. It matters that the anger and intensity of John (brilliantly played by Kevin Carroll) radiates outward, not inward. A drama series can survive many things in our current television moment, from bad first impressions to outright badness. But a reactive protagonist simply doesn’t fly. Justin Theroux is a remarkably charismatic performer, yet his Kevin Garvey was nearly intolerable in Season 1: A chain-smoking Job cursed with murderous hallucinations and seven-minute abs. After a single episode, John is already more richly drawn and compelling than Kevin ever was: He’s a fireman who starts fires, a skeptic who’s afraid of the unknown. Thanks to him, The Leftovers finally has a threat that is something other than metaphysical, a spark more powerful than the one on the end of a plastic lighter.
The positive changes aren’t limited to what’s presented onscreen. In a long, fascinating interview with Alan Sepinwall, Lindelof copped to writing much of the first season in a depressed fog. This was evident at the time and it’s even doubly so now. One of the more off-putting aspects of The Leftovers’ first season was the way it sank, lumpenly, into its own misery. Characters cursed, screamed, and impotently banged the walls. The second name on the call sheet, Amy Brenneman, didn’t even speak. The Leftovers was a show about suffering that was, itself, suffering. It needed attention and serious help but didn’t seem to know how to ask for either.
All of that has changed in Year 2. I’ve watched the first three episodes of the sophomore season and all are crisp and invigorated, with story lines that leap and curl with balletic grace. Part of this can be attributed to Lindelof leaving the bones of Tom Perrotta’s book behind — a move that Perrotta, a member of the writing staff, wholeheartedly supported. (I’ve argued before that strong source material can be much more curse than gift, and this is especially true with heady, anguished novels.) But Lindelof himself seems particularly reenergized. No longer does The Leftovers waste time driving around looking for lost dogs to shoot or paying visits to glum, nicotine-stained pity parties. Instead, there are glimpses of actual wit. Evie Murphy, well played by Jasmin Savoy Brown, grins and sasses like only a teenager untouched by tragedy can. The television cutaways to Mark Linn-Baker, Perfect Strangers star and hoax perpetrator, hint at something I’ve long wanted for the show: The idea that someone, somewhere must have benefited from the departure in a funny or outlandish way. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to live in a world without dark humor.1 It’s that I simply don’t recognize it. Despite the long, handsy shadow of Holy Wayne, The Leftovers will never be a show that hugs you. But, opening scene aside, it no longer appears so aggressively committed to pushing people away.
Lindelof’s comment about writers using jokes to deflect pain suggests that there were no writers in the onscreen world of The Leftovers Season 1.
But these improvements are technical. (There are no sabermetricians for television — at least not yet — but it doesn’t take an algorithm to know that adding Emmy winner Regina King to your cast is always going to be a net positive.) Where The Leftovers still trips me up is a simple question of aesthetics. Which is to say, for as much as I’m willing to admit that the show is made with real skill and great care, I’m still often struck with the thought that I hate it and, like Kevin Garvey, I kind of want to punch it in its smug, credulous face.
Is this rational? Of course not. But neither is the show Lindelof and his crew are committed to making. Though grief is no longer the central engine of The Leftovers — and thank Ghost Ann Dowd for that! — emotion, in its purest, rawest state, still is. The show wants to give shape to ideas and sensations that are essentially shapeless and The Leftovers often fumbles in its execution. In an upcoming episode, a straw-man scold asks a key character how traumatic past events made her “feel” until she responds by unleashing a primal cry and tackling him. This is cathartic but not particularly dramatic. It’s the sort of revelation that closes doors instead of opening them; it’s an honesty that feels like a dead end.
This problem seems baked in to The Leftovers and has from the beginning. (You either accept a woman repeatedly hiring a hooker to shoot her point blank in the chest or you don’t.) For every moment of legitimate wonder, like the young women running, nude and Weir-like, through the woods, there are thudding sequences undone by an obnoxious music cue — Kevin’s Anger iPod remains my least favorite character on TV — or one MacGuffin too many. Ghosts, faith healers, epilepsy, disappearing lakes: The show remains committed to blowing provocative imagery into the air like pollen. The results can either flower or make you sneeze.
The Leftovers’ new title sequence commands us to “let the mystery be” and it’s hard not to hear that and think of Lost, the brilliant roller coaster of a series that made Lindelof’s career and also made him slightly mad. In fact, it’s possible to view The Leftovers’ ragged protagonists — beset as they are by unsolvable mysteries and inscrutable references to Australia — as stand-ins for Lost’s perpetually unsatisfied fans. Yet while there’s no question Lindelof is directly addressing those lapsed believers when he says in interviews that no explanation will ever be given for the show’s supernatural occurrences, I think the person he’s really speaking to is himself.
There are few people alive who are as facile with raw story as Lindelof. In his nimble hands, entire histories can be revealed in a well-chosen conversation; a character’s complete mind-set can be explained in a single, well-placed flashback. (The manner in which he reintroduces the Garveys in next week’s episode, for example, is a marvel of storytelling efficiency.) This is a rare skill in TV and it’s much in demand. Yet it also, I think, speaks to a desire on Lindelof’s part for the sort of neat resolution and order that is possible only in art and never in life: the well-timed comeback, the obvious, problem-solving metaphor. It’s a glibness I tend to favor as well and, when The Leftovers is truly clicking, I begin to wonder if I find the show so continually discomfiting not just because it rejects that glibness but because it is made by someone who is obviously struggling with that rejection, too. With a few more tweaks, The Leftovers could easily become a more conventionally satisfying show. That it isn’t and likely will never be is an artistic choice I truly admire, even as I catch myself reaching for the remote.
In its second season, The Leftovers is hugely, demonstrably better. It is also maddeningly enigmatic, distressingly squishy, and relentlessly vague. Like any true religion, accepting this show with a whole heart requires a leap of faith. I’m not sure I’m ready to jump. But, for the first time, I’m standing on the ledge looking with real envy at those on the other side.