December 8, 2015 by Jason Seligson
The Leftovers is the best show on TV. That’s what I’ve been saying to everyone I know—friends, family, co-workers, random humans on the street—since its second season premiered this October. To some of those people (not the random ones), I was singing a familiar tune: I had also been vocal of the series last season, pushing it on people before it even premiered. I was anticipating greatness, but truthfully, I didn’t know what the series (which would be deviating heavily from its source material) would bring.
I first read Tom Perrotta’s novel that the series was adapted from for a college course. It was right when the book was published; I was a huge fan of his work, and finished the story in no time. I even had the opportunity to meet Perrotta when he came to speak to our class toward the end of the semester—and listened with rapt attention as he spoke about developing the TV adaptation, saying it was currently being shopped around. I remember thinking the series would make a great mini-series—since the novel was a finite story—and I started to daydream about what a TV show adaptation might look like.
A little over a year later, news broke that HBO would be making The Leftovers TV series with Damon Lindelof as an executive producer. It was almost too good to be true: The Leftovers would be Lindelof’s first post-Lost TV project (which ended in 2010). I couldn’t wait to see what he would do with the material. So naturally, I talked the show up to a lot of people—most of whom were already Lost fans—and many of them got on board for a new complicated drama that, although quite different from Lost, just might fill the void that it left.
But ultimately the first season of The Leftovers fell short of my expectations—and that saddened me more than anything the show actually did in its first ten episodes. As a fan of Lindelof and of Perrotta, I really wanted to love the show—but I had to admit that it just wasn’t working for me. Readers of Tom Perrotta know his novels are far from light and sunny, but the series somehow managed to create a world even bleaker than the one in the book.
I’m not saying the book itself is perfect by comparison—among a few other issues, I didn’t especially love the ending, and I felt like we spent too much time in the GR with Laurie; but the show felt like it added new obstacles in the paths of its characters that made it harder to connect to them and invest in their lives. I won’t go through every character, but here are a few that come to mind: Despite Amy Brenneman’s great performance, by not having the luxury of hearing Laurie’s thoughts (as we do in the books), her storyline often felt frustrating and impenetrable. And the decision to make Kevin the Chief of the Mapleton Police Department instead of the mayor felt like it had mixed results, like the show was trying to create an antihero without giving us a sense of who he was as a character. The show became a weekly struggle to get through, let alone actually enjoy. There were interesting ideas (a lot of them), but it felt like they couldn’t be fully explored or executed amidst the existential despair that pervaded nearly every scene.
The flaws of Season 1 have already been pointed out, so I won’t fixate on them. But I also can’t point out the negative without applauding the show for what it got right. Like how the first season also had extraordinary character development amidst some of the people that didn’t quite click. The third episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter” was the first time the show took an episode and focused on a single character—in this case Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccelston)—and the results were outstanding. Episode six, titled “Guest,” was another strong installment, this time focusing on Nora, played by the spectacular Carrie Coon. This is no small accomplishment, and is a signature in any project Lindelof tackles (Really, what is Lost without its characters?)
So yes, while there were some positive elements in Season 1, I cannot overstate the improvements that have been made in Season 2. From the opening scene in premiere, “Axis Mundi,” I knew we would be in for something special, something different. And by the episode’s end, I was fully on board. Season 2 gripped me in a way Season 1 never did—and it looks like the majority of the show’s audience agrees. A tour de force of acting, writing, and directing, The Leftovers has been firing on all cylinders, delivering a near-perfect season of television. To top it off, the show is articulating all of its ideas in such captivating ways that I have no trouble putting this season along with the all-time greats.
Everything was elevated in Season 2. Coon and Eccleston have continued to be powerhouse actors, as has Ann Dowd; but this year, everyone did incredible work. By throwing the Garveys into a brand new location, Justin Theroux has found nuances to Kevin, and finally getting to hear Brenneman as Laurie have been an absolute joy to watch. Regina King and Kevin Caroll (Erika and John Murphy) were revelations; not only fitting in seamlessly with the rest of the cast, but delivering performance after knockout performance.
The high points in Season 2 are too many to list, and every episode brought us a new unforgettable moment that topped the one before it. Whether it was Laurie gunning down the GR in “Off Ramp,” Matt’s odyssey to get Mary back to Jarden in “No Room at the Inn,” or Nora and Erika verbally sparring in “Lens,” the entire “International Assassin” episode, to that final stinger of a ending in the penultimate “Ten-Thirteen”—the list goes on and on.
I am so happy that The Leftovers has had such an undeniably strong season, partly because it’s been so enjoyable to watch, but also in part because for a while, it seemed like Damon Lindelof couldn’t catch a break. The end of Lost was one of the most polarizing television finales of all time, and for four years after it went off the air, Lindelof defended the series ending on a seemingly daily basis on Twitter. After Lost, he tried dabbling in film (Prometheus and Star Trek), but people didn’t like that either; personally speaking, it was evident that Lindelof was always better suited to TV, but even so, it seemed like a lot of people had decided that he had crossed some line of pop culture trust and that he would never be welcomed back in with open arms. On this subject, Vulture ran a brilliant piece about the disdain for Lindelof that has populated the zeitgeist, humorously comparing him to Toby from The Office. As writer Nate Jones deftly puts it, if anyone thinks their favorite creator hasn’t written anything as bad as Lindelof, they have.
Damon Lindelof speaks my language. The way he tells stories is like no one else. He’s without a doubt, my favorite writer/showrunner, and I think it’s unfair that he—and Lost—have become dismissed in our conversations about pop culture and the all-time great TV shows. I love Lost to this day. It was an incredible journey and it means more to me personally than almost any show I’ve ever watched. I’m in the minority for liking the way it ended, but I would also be lying if I said the lack of certain answers the show produced didn’t frustrate me on some level. That said, I like that The Leftovers has become its own thing, completely separate from the novel it’s based on. I like that Lindelof is back in his wheelhouse—which is mystery. He’s playing (even more overtly than he did in Lost) with religion and the supernatural and the result has been highly intellectual, cinematic, jaw-dropping storytelling.
Maybe those problems that I had with The Leftovers‘ first season was watching such a dark, relentless show without feeling that it would be worth going to those places in the first place. A lot of fans wanted to know if we would find out what caused the Departure. Lindelof was adamant from the get-go that we wouldn’t, and for some, that was a deal-breaker. The Leftovers is never going to tell us what caused The Departure, and while it’s something that annoyed me upon finishing Perrotta’s novel when it first came out, and admittedly, throughout the first season, I no longer feel that way anymore. I’ve sort of made my peace with not knowing. At this point, the show is more than the mystery of the Departure, more than just a cursory exploration of its characters in a changed world, and that’s because we care about them. I just want them to be okay, and I want to watch as they try to grapple with grief and loss and yes, mystery. In other words, I want to see them live. I don’t think we need Big Picture answers for The Leftovers. Not quite. The most compelling thing the show can do is to continue to straddle that line between the unknown and the known. The most important thing it can do is tell a good story: leave the rest up to the audience to wonder.
This season’s finale stuck the landing. It felt open-ended enough for a potential third season, yet complete and definitive at the same time. There’s no doubt in my mind that The Leftovers deserves another season. Whether or not it needs one is another story. Who knows—maybe it’s just the time of year—but as this season has come to a close, above all else, I’m left feeling grateful; grateful that the show managed to do that rare thing in TV, by converting skeptics or agnostics; grateful that we got the kind of happy ending that I needed; grateful that we got these last ten episodes in the first place. We all started this journey back in Mapleton along with the Garveys; but we’ve come a long way, and so has this show. Jarden is their new home, a chance for everyone to have a second chance. It’s what he and Nora were hoping to find when they moved in the first place. It’s what Kevin reaffirms when he speaks to Meg. “I live here now,” he tells her. In the episode’s final moments, Kevin finally finds his family again. It’s simple and powerful, sophisticated and beautiful. It’s what these past ten episodes have all been in one way, shape or anther. It’s why this season is one for the record books.