In its first season, HBO's supernatural family drama The Leftovers was an acquired taste, to put it mildly.
For everybody who loved it (including me), there were seemingly four people who couldn't stand it, who found its mood of ultra-despair over the top and laughable. Yeah, these detractors argued, 2 percent of the world's population had disappeared, but did the show need to be about how sad everybody was all the time? And there were just as many who respected what the show was doing but simply couldn't watch it, since it was all about depression.
Yet for everybody who tuned out of season one, I would make a hearty recommendation of season two, which begins Sunday, October 4, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. (You can dive right in with this season, which is surprisingly self-contained.) The series hasn't just fixed a few things here and there. It's gotten a full-scale overhaul that has preserved everything I loved about season one, while making itself more accessible to those who found the show unnecessarily grim.
Don't call this a reboot, though. This is, if anything, a sequel to season one, one that shares some of the same cast members, a bit of the same tone, and a general sense of the world tipping off its axis, ever so slightly. It's a show that wants to provoke a reaction in you, whether it's admiration, hatred, or just bafflement. It's HBO's best drama — and thus must-see TV.
Here are five ways the show has made itself both better and more accessible.
1) It's radically altered its storytelling format
If everybody could agree on one thing about season one, it's that the episodes following one specific character through their lives — instead of trying to follow everybody in the show's extensive ensemble — were the pinnacle of what the series was trying to do. In particular, the season's sixth episode, "Guest," served as a standout showcase for actress Carrie Coon as Nora Durst, a woman who saw her entire family disappear in the so-called Sudden Departure.
Other episodes in season one, by contrast, could feel slightly disconnected, as the story struggled to incorporate all of the characters strewn about the country. This particularly manifested around the season's midpoint, when, say, main character Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) was searching for a missing baby Jesus from a church Nativity scene. It felt strange to have so much drama surrounding what was ultimately a very small story.
Season two hasn't switched entirely to single-perspective episodes, but it has limited itself to telling stories from the point of view of one family or small group of people. The first episode limits itself to the perspective of a brand-new family of characters, living in Jarden, Texas, a town that saw no disappearances during the Sudden Departure, while episode two is limited to the Garvey family from season one. Episode three, then, follows a new set of characters entirely.
This could feel confusing, but the show's writers — led by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (on whose novel the series is based) — 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.
It's smart, and in an age when more and more shows go in for moment-based storytelling — which relies on big, exciting scenes, rather than holistic episodes — it feels like a much more satisfying way of telling TV stories.
2) The tone has lightened considerably
Here is the season one opening sequence for The Leftovers:
The season two opening sequence (not yet available online) uses this song by Iris DeMent for its backing music:
There's no better explanation of the show's slight shift in tone than this. Season one is overbearing, oppressive. If you can get in sync with it, it's like nothing else. If you can't, it feels completely ridiculous. Season two is more playful. It's concerned with the same ideas — no less than the overriding mysteries of existence — but it also leaves a little room for humor, light, and the parts of life that aren't an endless slog through the depths of depression.
A lot of this has to do with the shift in setting. Jarden, having not been affected by the Sudden Departure, is a place where life has gone on much as it always has — or at least where everybody is hugely invested in acting as if that's so. And for that first episode, at least, it's nice to spend time with a family that hasn't been splintered apart by recent events.
3) The show is less relentlessly white
Another consistent complaint about season one was that the show essentially didn't have room for viewpoints that weren't white — and rarely for perspectives that weren't male or Christian. The show's stories were all rooted primarily in existential angst, something that can be hard for viewers to hook into.
Season two broadens its viewpoint considerably. Yes, the Garveys (with Nora, Kevin's partner, in tow) are still a focus of the show, but so are their new next-door neighbors in Jarden, the Murphys, a black family. The show doesn't go out of its way to comment on race, but by their simple presence, the Murphys allow for greater breadth to the series' stories. Now the stakes feel far more personal than symbolic.
It also doesn't hurt that they're played by such terrific actors. As mother Erika, Regina King continues a string of compelling, excellent work in a huge variety of TV series. (That work just earned her an Emmy for American Crime.) Kevin Carroll turns patriarch John into a man with his own mysteries and bruised ego, and there are several moments in the first episode featuring him that are legitimately shocking. It's both great character creation and great casting.
4) It's easier to enjoy the show if you're not religious or religiously inclined
Season one was decidedly a series for those who were either predisposed toward religiosity or those who had been raised with a heavy religious element in their backgrounds. It was a show that seemed to take place in a world where some sort of god had made his or her presence known, suddenly and violently. And if you were agnostic or atheist, it could be hard to hop on board that train (though, of course, not impossible).
Season two opens this question up, too. There are scientists slowly closing in on an explanation for what caused the Sudden Departure, even as there are more and more hints around the show's edges that something truly miraculous happened.
The show engages with some of the same ideas Lindelof's previous series, Lost, did, but on a more symbolic level. Is religion just the method humans use of explaining what can't be explained via science? Or if science finds an "answer" for religious experience, does it somehow invalidate it completely? Most importantly, season two doesn't force viewers into feeling one way or the other.
5) It feels like a show of the moment, weirdly
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. The show has never argued this more forcefully — or more audaciously — than in a season-opening prologue that has nothing to do with anything else (yet) and also shows how willing the show is to completely risk falling on its face. (The less you know about this prologue, the better.)
This idea of grief as an all-pervasive force on Earth is one that feels intensely of the moment. Certainly, 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. And you'll have to live on past that, because they were taken and you were not. That can feel like an all-consuming darkness, but it won't forever. That could feel like salvation, or it could cause spirals of guilt. You can't lose yourself forever. Life has a way of making sure of that. 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.