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For those who were unsure about Season 1 of The Leftovers and want to give HBO’s mystery-laden drama another go, the first ten minutes of the Season 2 premiere make for a difficult start. Damon Lindelof’s show (based on Tom Perrotta’s novella) has always had a romance with its own mythology, without finding the right ways to make that resonate with viewers. As the opening scenes of a nude cavewoman giving birth, eating eggs from a nest, and engaging with snakes pass by, one starts to think about real life passing one by while watching it.
The new season finds big changes not only for the show, but for the Garvey family. Kevin (Justin Theroux) is still grappling with hallucinations (primarily of Ann Dowd’s Patti), and adjusts to life with Nora (Carrie Coon) as a permanent part of his family. Jill (Margaret Qualley) has finally managed to find some happiness, and the group’s adoption of Lily, who was secretly left on their doorstep last season by estranged son Tommy (Chris Zylka), seems to have given them all a sense of meaning.
But at one point, Patti’s ghost asks Kevin whether he’s the star of his own story, or just a bit player in the story of the Murphy family, next to whom the Garvey clan now live (having left Mapleton for a town called Miracle — one without departures). The premiere introduces the family (played by Kevin Carroll, Regina King, Jovan Adepo, and Jasmin Savoy Brown) as a quirky group with many parallels to the Garvey brood. But then they disappear for two episodes, solidifying The Leftovers’ confused style where it doesn’t seem to know who the star of its own story is, either.
Those who stick around for more will discover the new season’s main twist, and while it’s not much of a hook to go on, viewer persistence will eventually be rewarded by the arrival of Coon, Season 1’s shining star, somewhat righting the ship. Nora is the heart now of a Garvey family that isn’t as dour, mostly thanks to her. Unfortunately, by the third episode, more of the show’s old habits of scattershot plotting and glaring logistical fallacies start to creep in, and skeptical viewers have a right to start feeling very wary of what might come next.
The Leftovers has always done a decent job of illustrating the industry of life after the Departure, regarding its monetary impact and the infrastructure created to help people cope (or to just make money). But it’s never been good at explaining scope or giving any sense of stakes, which creates a lack of emotional resonance. In the third episode, Lori (Amy Brenneman, who stars in a mostly outstanding capsule episode just like Coon did last year), writes about her experiences with the Guilty Remnant and hopes to turn it into a book deal. At a meeting with a publisher, he tells her, “this is great, but we need to put some feeling, some emotion into it.” These comments feel like production notes that HBO might have given Lindelof regarding his own scripts for this show.
Occasionally, The Leftovers is very good. Coon and Brenneman are excellent, and the show puts forth many fascinating ideas about our response to catastrophic events, about holy men and charlatans, about the nature of family and disillusionment, and the mystery of what the Departure was, and if it could happen again. There are hints about something big happening in Australia, and about the Departure being a geological event (in both cases, there are shades of the excellent film Picnic at Hanging Rock here). In the interest of holding back spoilers (for the souls who will choose to stay invested in it), I dare not get more specific. But the flip side to this positivity is that more often than not, The Leftovers is laughably absurd at best, and tediously terrible at worst.
The show’s maddeningly bipolar nature makes it hard to quit. Like Lori’s feelings about leaving the Guilty Remnant, there’s still a part that makes sense. There are parts of The Leftovers that do have a good hook, and that are well-acted and genuinely interesting. But while the overall story, to some degree, is about confusion and a loss of potential, the show itself is largely the same. And just when it seems like it’s closed the book on some of Season 1’s biggest narrative mistakes, Season 2 comes along and does something even worse.
For the dedicated, The Leftovers will still provide much of what made Season 1 both great and terrible, just with new surroundings and what feels, briefly, like a reset. But ultimately the show continues to be a frustrating and disappointing mismatch of tone, writing, style, and story. What hurts the most is that there is a great story here — The Leftovers just doesn’t know how to tell it.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
The Leftovers Season 2 premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, October 4th on HBO.