[Editor’s note: This piece contains spoilers for “The Leftovers” Season 3, Episode 2, “Don’t Be Ridiculous.”]
Mark Linn-Baker started watching “The Leftovers” because he was in it — though he didn’t know why.
Before the first season of the HBO drama began airing, the veteran actor got a call from his agents informing him that the show wanted to use clips from “Perfect Strangers,” the classic 1980s sitcom he starred in from 1986-1993. However, they didn’t provide any context.
“So that first season I was watching because I was curious what this show was,” Linn-Baker told IndieWire via phone. And his attention was definitely rewarded by the supernatural drama, which wonders what would happen to the world if 2 percent of the population just suddenly vanished.
“It was a fascinating show,” Linn-Baker said. “Extremely well-produced, extremely upsetting — in a good way! Very engaging, and extremely imaginative.”
One of the first season’s most imaginative conceits: The entire cast of “Perfect Strangers” was included in the Great Departure. “The whole ‘Perfect Strangers’ idea originated with Jackie Hoyt, who was a writer/producer on Seasons 1 and 2,” executive producer Damon Lindelof told IndieWire. “She pitched that idea in our early days in the writers’ room in relation to the world-building aspect: ‘Who else departed in this world?’ And Jackie was like, ‘What if the entire cast of ‘Perfect Strangers’ departed? The entire cast?'”
This idea gained a new wrinkle in Season 2, when the writers wanted to find a way into establishing one of the season’s major twists. “We wanted to set up the idea that Evie [Jasmin Savoy Brown] faked her departure, and wondered if we could do it with Mark Linn-Baker,” Lindelof said. “There’d just be this little thing as John was watching the television, that Mark Linn-Baker was discovered in Mexico, and he was game to come to Texas and do this little [scene]. Just, ‘Leave me alone. No English, no English.'”
Linn-Baker didn’t hesitate at all to do the bit. “That was fun to do,” he said. “Just from a professional viewpoint it was great — a great crew, a great cast.”
While Linn-Baker might have thought his appearance was a one-off, Lindelof had bigger plans, because “I’d been told that comedy comes in threes,” he said. “We had this idea for the ladder; that there was this device out there that you could get in and it would supposed take you to where all the departed people went, and that it would come across Nora’s radar as a scam since she was a fraud investigator for the DSD. We were like, ‘Who should be the emissary of this scam?’ And I was like, ‘Let’s go whole hog and get Mark Linn-Baker, as himself, to do it.'”
Lindelof thus reached out to Linn-Baker — “I had his e-mail address, which was his mistake” — with an intriguing pitch. “‘We’ve got a little more for you this time than just being chased by a camera crew. It’s going to be a really big scene. Are you game? You have to play yourself, but it’s obviously an alternate version of yourself,'” is how Lindelof described that email. “And Linn-Baker was like, ‘When and where?'”
Linn-Baker also remembered being told that “It would just be a crucial introduction to what would happen in Season 3.” Which is no lie — as seen in the episode, he causes Nora (Carrie Coon) to seriously consider a crazy scheme that might reunite her with her children.
However, what didn’t exactly come up in that pitch was the fact that Linn-Baker, playing himself, would be rendered as an incredibly tragic figure, reflecting Nora’s own grief as the one of four who was left behind.
“‘OK, how are we going to make this feel like this could really happen in this world?'” is how co-creator Tom Perrotta described this sort of narrative challenge. “And how you do it is to play Mark Linn-Baker completely straight and distraught. He is clearly partaking in ‘The Leftovers’ emotional universe. He is vibrating on a frequency that Nora kind of gets.”
Getting to that place for the resulting scene was something that Linn-Baker believes required a certain level of instinctual understanding. “You can’t break this stuff down,” he said. “You either understand it or you don’t, you know? If it has to be explained, then it’s going to be a long road to get there. I think they had an idea of what they wanted; I think I understood that pretty quickly, and we worked on it, and I think I gave them something interesting, and I think I gave them what they were looking for.”
- This was Linn-Baker’s first time playing a (fictionalized) version of himself. “Who better to play the alternate universe Mark Linn-Baker?” he said. “Just happy to get that part!”
- While Linn-Baker is only on screen for his one major scene, he did perform live with Carrie Coon for the phone conversation which precedes it.
- Linn-Baker took playing a fictional version of himself seriously. “There was one line, I forget what it was, but there was one line, I went to Damon, and I said, ‘You know, I think Mark Linn-Baker might say it this way,'” Linn-Baker revealed. “[Lindelof] said, ‘Great!’ And we made that change.”
The end result is a scene dense with meaning and emotion, heightened by its oddity. “One of the things I’ve learned is that the show can accommodate enormous amounts of weirdness,” Perrotta said. “So in the past I might’ve gone, ‘Whoa! Boy, Mark Linn-Baker is a little too weird.’ And now I don’t know what too weird is.”
IndieWire then noted that Perrotta was the one who suggested that Kevin (Justin Theroux) should sing karaoke in the Season 2 finale.
“He actually thought that that was a normal idea!” Lindelof said.
“The Leftovers” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Additional reporting by Ben Travers.