In an age of revivals, reboots and general second chances, what Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta set out to do with the second season of “The Leftovers” demands a vocabulary all its own. Changing the setting, throwing in a brand new set of core characters and expanding on its spotlight structuring of last year (think back to Christopher Eccleston and Carrie Coon’s solo episodes), Season 2 is a creative overhaul from the same team responsible for the original season. Even the book’s author is on board as a writer and executive producer, despite using up nearly all of his novel’s contents last year. Luckily, Indiewire’s own Liz Shannon Miller provided us with a perfect word to encapsulate what’s happened, despite the fact she was focusing on another show at the time. In a report on “Twin Peaks” from July, she wrote:
“Reboot” is not the word for those projects, it appears. “Reboot,” as we’re going to define it going forward, indicates a lack of continuity with the original series; real creative reinvention is the new standard for the term. “Rebirth,” meanwhile, does two things: indicates a once-thought-dead project is now alive, and it’s returning with the same creative team.
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It’s a term made all the more glaringly appropriate during the second season’s first three episodes, as a barrage of metaphorical rebirths are depicted for both strange and familiar faces, as well as the show itself. In terms of being “once-thought-dead,” “The Leftovers” felt closer to cancellation than most first-year HBO dramas. It also came up short in all major awards races, a key aspect of the HBO brand. Combine that with a book that’s seen its final page put to screen, and the co-creators had little reason not to up the ante — in what proves early on to be an audacious creative flourish.
The almost entirely new elements of Season 2 are also its best qualities. Episode 1 is told exclusively from the perspective of the Murphys, a family living in the town of Jarden, TX. If you haven’t seen the trailers to know the significance of this small town south of Austin, I’d encourage you to skip to the next graph. Jarden is also home to Miracle National Park, a designation bestowed on the town after no one “departed” from within the city limits on October 14. The population didn’t drop by two percent as it did everywhere else. It remained the same, and now the citizens are prospering from their good fortune.
The Murphys, however, are a different story. Made up of a happy clan similar to “The Garveys at Their Best,” John (Kevin Carroll), Erika (Regina King), Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Evangeline “Evie” Murphy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) are living lives like we’ve never seen. Establishing these characters feels like the next chapter from the book — or at least a fitting start to a second novel — and it’s only when the show goes back to its original setting in Mapleton do things start to feel slightly forced. The confidence imbued in the direction and writing of Season 1 made the storytelling as smooth as the series’ impeccable score from Max Richter. As that same creative team tries to shut the door on the old to usher in the new, there are one or two hiccups (and that’s as detailed as I’ll get until posting Indiewire’s upcoming episode reviews).
Season 2 chooses to explore and expand on a world created with painstaking clarity last season, at times trying to provide a unique viewpoint and at other times reintroducing established ideas (some of which can feel a slightly redundant). If you were hooked on Kevin Jr.’s (Justin Theroux) internal battle with his own sanity or Tommy’s (Chris Zylka) frustrations with the unknown, you’re in luck. Both are put under the microscope, even if one related storyline is wrapped up a little too quickly in an effort to move on.
But it’s where we’re moving to that’s most pertinent to the series’ continued success. Unlike the characters within “The Leftovers,” the show itself has to move forward instead of just questioning whether or not it can. Believing in this makes the move to Jarden all the more crucial, as a new setting with changing power dynamics should push the Garveys to fresh territory (after the Murphys help build it). I say “should” because the elaborate set-up taking place in the first three episodes is a meticulous blend of endings and beginnings more than observed character development through conflict. There are some larger mysteries dropped in like a ton of bricks and a few smaller ones barely noticeable in passing, but it lacks the raw, emotional power of Season 1. Watching people try to rebuild — especially while doubting if they even can — isn’t as immediately satisfying as seeing their basest selves interact, even if this orchestrated build-up could pay compelling dividends down the line.
What’s both admirable, provocative and chilling is how Lindelof and Perrotta directly invite the doubt this creates in the audience at home. Aside from an opening as confounding as it is distressing, a later scene finds a character best left unnamed discussing how it’s hard to tell if the Murphys are part of the Garvey’s story or if it’s the other way around. The narrative implication focuses on which family has more secrets, drama and development ahead of them, but the separate connotation teases the audience with the possibility of even more change in the future. By this time next season (if we’re lucky enough to get a Season 3), will we still be following the Garveys or will be have moved on to the Murphys?
Even after three episodes, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the second season’s story is headed. The structuring alone prevents viewers from knowing what next week’s focus will be, and whether that makes the series more accessible to potential fans and as exciting to existing ones is an equally difficult prediction. Anyone complaining about the dour tone is likely to remain turned off — if that easily scared group can get past the first 10 minutes of Season 2, I’d be shocked — but those looking for explanations to Season 1’s more abstract answers may be satisfied (no, not the big one — never the big one). Yet even when smiling faces pop up or pleasure isn’t immediately followed up by pain, we’re still watching a world of broken families and fractured psyches trying to be okay again. That question — of if and how they can — remains steadfast. And with it, “The Leftovers” continues to forge its own fascinating path.
“The Leftovers” Season 2 premieres Sunday, October 4 at 9pm. Indiewire will be publishing weekly reviews of each episode.