The first season of The Leftovers (2014) was one of the most polarizing experiences in recent television history. After Lost (2004), Damon Lindelof’s name comes with some immediate love-hate baggage. The Leftovers did nothing to change that, offering a series (based on the Tom Perrotta book of the same name) rooted in depression and dysfunction, following humans navigating the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of 2% of the world’s population. Folks either couldn’t get enough of the heavy-handed surrealism that surrounded the Garveys and residents of Mapleton, NY, or they found it to be a pretentious and joyless slog through nihilism with no redeeming value. And it didn’t seem like either camp was willing to switch sides.
Thirteen long months after the first season finale aired on HBO, a new, reborn Leftovers premiere aired, complete with a revamped credit sequence, new cast, new location, and refreshed tone. With its source material expired at the end of season one, Lindelof and company were forced to create an all-original story for the show moving forward and took the opportunity to somewhat reinvent the series. The result is still definitely Leftovers, but it's something more accessible to the naysayers of the first season. It carries all the odd quirks and hypnagogic freakiness Lindelof fans have come to expect and also caters to those who missed (or skipped) the first season, as they’re able to jump into what kicks off as a fairly self-contained new storyline.
The Leftovers premiere initiated with an almost ten-minute long sequence depicting a cavewoman giving birth during an earthquake -- an event that brought a life into the world but killed all her friends who were crushed by a subsequent avalanche. As she's up in a tree sucking down raw bird eggs, she sees a snake slithering across her infant child on the ground; fighting if off, she gets bit on the arm. The venom soon kills her, just as another cavewoman scoops up her orphaned child to take over the role of mother. The segment's relevance to the rest of the episode, and the story at large, is completely bewildering, although Lindelof and Tom Perrotta claim it will be made clear.
Lindelof told Vox, “By the end of the season, hopefully the debate won't be over whether it was necessary or not, but the debate will be what it meant. A theme we're really interested in exploring as storytellers is when you ascribe meaning to something.” Either way, it serves to keep the audience off balance, much like the show’s characters.
Gone are the Guilty Remnant and Holy Wayne, the curious roaming deer, the wild packs of dogs, the freakishly real mannequins and Jill Garvey's (Margaret Qualley) lustful best friend. The Leftovers moved to Jarden, Texas, a town re-named "Miracle," following the sudden departure. It’s the only place on earth where none of its nearly 10,000 residents poofed out of existence on that devastating day, but if the tone permeating our introduction to the town means anything, Jarden holds more mysteries than miracles.
A major shift this season comes in the form of the Murphys, a seemingly perfect family unit full of love, humor, and bad knock-knock jokes told over backyard games of catch. The cast not only recognizes the blanket "whiteness" of the first season but also takes the burden off the Garveys to carry the whole narrative.
The Murphy family daughter, Yvette (Jasmin Savoy Brown), swims in a local lake which is undergoing unexplained scientific testing. The family son, Michael (Jovan Adepo), preaches at the Baptist church and sells vials of local water to tourists who drop by Jarden on a daily basis. (That’s one of the highlights of the new setting -- the way Miracle, Texas, has transitioned into a tourist attraction full of the same T-shirts and souvenirs you find every two feet in Kissimmee and the towns surrounding Disney World in real life.) A strange hobo stands atop a pylon in the middle of town, to whom Michael brings food cooked by his mother Erika (Regina King). Erika is a seemingly devoted and strong wife to John (Kevin Carroll), whose performance alone is enough of reason to watch this season. John has an incredible ability to convey malice, suspicion, and downright charisma at the same time. He’s also an ex-con who spent six years in prison for attempted murder, chalking the sentence up to the fact he “didn’t try hard enough.”
The surface of normalcy slips, though. In a scene not yet further explained, Erika goes on a jog through the woods and digs up a buried box with a live bird inside. In another scene, John, who serves as the town fire chief, uses his firefighter goon squad to burn down the house of a local fortune teller because John thinks the guy's nonsense is dangerous. Oh, and as the family eats dinner in a restaurant, a guy comes in and Old Testament-style sacrifices a goat in the middle of the diner. The citizens watch with an oddly apathetic “again with the goat sacrifice, dude?” look, and ten points are automatically added to the town’s mystique meter.
Three-quarters of the way through the episode is when the Garvey crew, Kevin (Justin Theroux), Jill, and Nora (Carrie Coon) -- along with Nora’s preacher brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston) and wife Mary (Janel Moloney) -- show up. They’re basically just familiar faces in this episode as they move in next door to the Murphys, but it’s clear the families will be associating in ways that go beyond the realm of backyard BBQs as the episodes move forward.
What’s the point? The Leftovers still has all the otherworldly weirdness that separates it from almost every other drama on television but is so far presenting it in a more universal way. Where the first season was driven by depression and following characters stuck in perpetual sadness, this one seems to be driven more by curiosity and purpose. There are more moments of humor (largely from John) in this episode than were present in the whole first season of the series. It’s still a show that wants to get a reaction out of its viewers, it’s just going about it a different way. One could go so far as to say it acknowledged and shed much of its pretentiousness. Just compare the opening credits from the first season to the second season. You can feel the difference:
Vox also notes that as the season moves forward, the way it tells the story has changed. Episodes center on smaller pockets of people instead of everyone at once, leaving characters and plot points out of some episodes to revisit them later. “This could feel confusing, but the show's writers find nifty ways to keep revisiting the same events from entirely new perspectives. And it allows for a storytelling structure that feels legitimately different from anything else on TV right now. Storylines are paused to be picked up later, and it feels, for all the world, like reading a great short-story collection.”
Additionally, the first season was heavily religious in its subtext. While it didn’t take a religious person to like the show, it was definitely helpful if the viewer knew something about religion. It's still there this time around, given that Eccleston's character is a preacher and the town name "Jarden" recalls French and Spanish translations of "garden" (reminiscent of Eden), but it's not mandatory the viewer have a religious background to understand its context in the narrative.
The Leftovers continues to be a show about the forces of humanity. It’s about loss, coping, and what happens to civilization in the wake of devastation. To cite Vox again, “One of the points Leftovers tries to make is that regardless of whether it's one person who is taken or 140 million, grief feels the same to everyone immediately affected... People have always died, and there have always been mass cataclysms that take the lives of dozens or hundreds or thousands at a time. But in an era of seemingly endless warfare and violence, death can feel even more terrifying and random than it always has. Someone you love, someone you'd never expect to lose, can be there and then not. In season two, The Leftovers asks what happens when the veil is pierced, ever so slightly, and light starts to seep in around the cracks.”
Whether or not The Leftovers will earn a larger fan base or convert haters into viewers remains to be seen, but the groundwork has been laid for a more tangible series. Life in Jarden may not have been touched by the sudden departure, but it's a far cry from normal.