THE LEFTOVERS Season Two Review
You wouldn’t be wrong to have ignored the second season premiere of HBO’s fledgling drama THE LEFTOVERS back in October. Despite an intriguing premise, the show’s first season had some questionable plotlines, insufferable characters, and a less than stellar pilot episode. While early episode “Two Boats and a Helicopter” was universally agreed to be one the best TV episodes this decade, the series as a whole suffered mediocre reviews and even worse viewership ratings. So it’s no surprise that season two flew under the public’s radar.
And that is a tragedy, because it can be said easily and without hesitation that this new installment of THE LEFTOVERS is the greatest drama on TV. Never have showrunners taken feedback to heart as radically as here. Season two is completely unrecognizable from its predecessor, and it wastes no time letting you know it. The awesome new opening sequence, cast, and setting are all complete departures (pun intended) from the original, and many will be left wondering during the season’s opening episode if this is, in fact, the right show. The second season’s storyline is totally original material, yet still penned by novel author Tom Perotta, and Damon Lindelof’s touch can be felt far more strongly.
Imagery: this isn’t THE LEFTOVERS that you remember
THE LEFTOVERS takes place several years after a random event known as The Departure saw millions of people vanish into thin air. Cults and communes have sprung up everywhere in response, on a level that make the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate look like high school anime club. Everywhere except Jarden, Texas, that is, rebranded as Miracle National Park after it survived the Departure without a single disappearance. It’s here that season two opens, though not in a way that you’d expect. After a bizarre parable involving cavewomen and earthquakes, we’re introduced to the Murphys, a brand new family for a brand new town. The Murphys initially appear to be the polar opposites of the Garvey clan: black, Texan, religious, and, most importantly, happy. But after one of their number vanishes the day the Garveys move in next door, it becomes clear that they share more in common with the main characters than anyone would want to admit.
Damn kids and their chemistry sets at the table
That the Garveys aren’t shown until the end of the first episode is indicative of the new direction the show has decided to take, but their story is still the focal point of the season. Kevin in particular must deal with the phantom of Patti, who continues to haunt him even after death. While the search for the missing Murphy colors the narrative, it’s the personal struggles of each character that are the focal points. The “character episodes” of season one were clearly superior to their ensemble counterparts, and with the exception of the premiere and finale, all of season two’s episodes are centered around a single person. It’s a highly fluid method of storytelling, as each character’s issues feed naturally into another’s.
Writing and delivery are much improved. Jill no longer suffers from the LIFE IS STRANGE levels of fumbling teen speak from last season, and is a much more likeable character for it. Disconnected narratives have been erased, and even Tommy, while still half a country away, now figures into the lives of the rest of the cast. Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston continue to provide standout performances, while newcomers Kevin Carroll and Regina King are excellent as John and Erika Murphy. As in the last season, encounters with the many odd folks perfectly depict the disturbed perception of reality that has taken hold of the country following the Departure. Public goat slaughters and flagellant beatings occur without the batting of an eye, creating a delicious sense of unease throughout.
Special shout outs go to Max Richter and his incredible score (his album, FROM SLEEP, received some attention here earlier). The music in THE LEFTOVERS is masterfully used to enrich the atmosphere. Richter’s haunting melodies perfectly compliment the fractured lives of Miracle’s denizens, while cheery folk anthems reinforce the emotional dissonance fronted by the leftovers. Even the obligatory BIRDMAN “drums-on-a-oner” scene is handled tastefully. Licensed and otherwise borrowed tracks run a gamut of effectiveness. Use of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” is paired beautifully with some particularly troubling scenes for Kevin, as his struggles are indeed analogous to those of the Hebrews in NABUCCO. The constant repetition of “Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies, however, completely drops that subtlety. We get it, Kevin is losing it! Why beat us over the head with that when everything else is handled so elegantly?
It’s this unfortunate outlier that highlights exactly how subdued the rest of the show handles its material, and how it’s this calculated approach that is perhaps THE LEFTOVERS’ greatest strength. While the Departure is a proven quantity, the same cannot be said for everything that came after. Are Kevin’s visions divine guidance, or simply dementia he got from his father? Were the Departed chosen, or did they just draw the short straw? And where did they go? Does Jarden actually hold any miracles? All of these questions and more are posed, and very few are given a straight answer. The Departure itself is purposefully never shown on camera, further leading the audience to question the reliability of the facts presented to them.
“You ever get tired of captions, Patti?”
THE LEFTOVERS’ second season reaches peaks in quality matched only by its emotional depths. This might very well be the biggest downer on TV, as rape, suicide, and abuse are all explored on top of themes of loss and abandonment. But while shows like THE WALKING DEAD and GAME OF THRONES tackle their dark material with comedic levels of stoicism, THE LEFTOVERS has the good sense to pull the camera back and give its characters chances to recognize the absurdity of their world. It manages to all at once be tragic and triumphant, witty and mystifying. There really is nothing else like it. So while the people of Jarden debate whether miracles are possible, THE LEFTOVERS is proof that they do happen. Don’t let this one be left behind.
THE LEFTOVERS is available in its entirety on HBOGo