The first season of HBO’s The Leftovers was like television S&M—daring, painful for its characters, painful for its audience, immensely satisfying to a particular niche. No show has ever investigated anguish, in all its permutations, so relentlessly. Damon Lindelof’s drama, based on Tom Perotta’s book of the same name, is set in a world much like ours, except 2 percent of the population vanished one Oct. 14, with no warning and no explanation. Was it the rapture? Was it the apocalypse? Was it proof of God’s existence? Proof of his indifference? Would it happen again? Every human being on Earth was left to answer these questions for him or herself, reckoning with loss in an agonizing process only marginally less excruciating for the audience.
Art has no obligation to be entertaining. But television has so recently embraced the possibility that it too might be art that very few series have explored this particular dispensation. None have de-prioritized entertainment value as fully as The Leftovers, which took a bleak premise and, as though it were the matzo of dramas, leavened it not at all. Anger, frustration, anomie, ennui, hopelessness, claustrophobia, self-harm, misery, denial, despair, mental instability, and full-blown depression were endemic in the first season, which focused on the Garveys, a nuclear family blown apart by the “sudden departure.” The Leftovers’ dedication to exploring melancholy in all its permutations made it unique, inventive, and very difficult: the best show you needed a Xanax to watch.
But the new season makes a start so fresh, it’s almost a rebooting: new location, new characters, an occasional smile. The show remains uniquely interested in coping—or not—with tragedy, but flashes of something that looks like hope have entered the scene. It’s not much—this is a still a show that includes a devastating murder-suicide as an ancillary plot point—but it’s enough to turn The Leftovers from a show you should have been watching, if you had time available between pouring lemon juice into your paper cuts, into a show you might actually want to watch. If The Leftovers is S&M, at least it now uses padded handcuffs.
The new season is set in Jarden, Texas, which has been renamed Miracle, for the miracle that happened there. Of its 9,261 residents, zero departed. This—what is it?—stroke of luck, proof of grace, destiny, has turned the town into a kind of holy site, a highly regulated national park beset daily by tourists, or more accurately, pilgrims, in which it’s completely normal for a man to bring a goat into the local diner and sacrifice him. Jarden’s permanent residents are quietly convinced of their town’s specialness, but their specialness makes them normal in one regard: they can be happy. They alone, in the world, have avoided catastrophe.
The first episode is told from the point of view of the Murphys, an intact nuclear family in Jarden drawn along similar lines to the Garveys, pre-cataclysm: father, mother, older brother, younger daughter. Evie, short for Yvette (Jasmin Savoy Brown), the daughter, is the first Murphy we see, leaping, shrieking and vital, into a swimming hole. She arrives home in time for dinner, and she, her brother Michael (Jovan Adepo) and mother Erika (Regina King) sneak upstairs and, giggling, stack books on their sleeping father’s chest. They have a seemingly idyllic family life that slowly gets complicated, while remaining essentially loving. Evie is epileptic. Erika is deaf. The father John (Kevin Carroll), a fire fighter, has a weird thing with garbage disposals and a history with the law. John goes to see an old acquaintance, Isaac, who tells people’s fortunes by looking at their handprints. Isaac swears he has a real gift, but John doesn’t believe him, a bit of understandable skepticism that turns sinister, in the fashion of Fahrenheit 451.
The Murphys and Miracle are so well-drawn that by the time Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), his girlfriend Nora Durst (the great Carrie Coon), and their adopted infant move in next door halfway through the episode, bringing—what is it?—bad luck, God’s wrath, destiny with them, I hadn’t missed them at all. “It’s hard to tell if they’re a part of your story, or you’re a part of theirs,” someone remarks to Kevin—and it’s true.
Lindelof’s work has never been better than it is in this first hour. He seems freed, not only from Perotta’s imagination, but from some of his own ticks. As one of the creators of Lost, he has had much practice introducing new characters with intriguing histories. But few of them have felt as meaty and genuine as the Murphys, who are fascinating without being bogged down with the metaphysical fillips familiar from Lost and that Lindelof even saddled Kevin with last season. (Even those beats—Kevin’s vanishing bagels and shirts, eerie dogs, and possessed deer are recast this season, perhaps, as a sign of mental illness.)
Lindelof has also tricked out his show, and particularly the first episode, with cinematic beats. Evie and her girlfriends are shown, without explanation, running naked through the woods, a moody shot of young people trying out their bodies, just because they can, more familiar from indie films than television. (It doesn’t feel particularly exploitative, but that scene includes pubic hair, also rare for television. The third episode contains male genitalia, another rarity.) There are evocative details: a woman watering her lawn in a wedding dress, a trailer covered in Christmas lights in the woods. (I have no evidence for this, beyond a sweaty, Southern location, but I suspect Lindelof was egged on by Cary Fukunaga’s work on True Detective.)
Most notably of all, the episode begins with a discrete segment about a prehistoric pregnant woman, who appears to live on the land that would become Jarden, trying to survive after her entire tribe is decimated by an earthquake, a sudden disappearance of its own. The sequence, which is appropriately scored to “Prelude to Act 1” from La Traviata, is in conversation with 2001, Terrence Malick, and Werner Herzog, and it is so aggressively trying something that it’s more fascinating than it is folly. Can this woman survive the loss— and then the snakes in the grass? This is the question that faces everyone in The Leftovers, though they are wearing clothes while they try to answer it.
The first three episodes of the show cover the same period of time. The second episode tracks backward, picking up with Kevin and Nora and Jill right after the finale left off and then following them to Jarden, where they meet the Murphys. (These dueling points of view make the early episode of The Leftovers akin to Showtime’s multiple-perspective drama The Affair, which also begins Sunday night, though it does not seem as if everyone on The Leftovers is suffering from some kind of awful memory-distorting disease.) The third episode is set back in New Jersey where Laurie (Amy Brenneman, who makes the most of finally being able to talk), fully disillusioned with the Guilty Remnant, the doomsday cult she was in the first season, is running a support group for former members of the GR, hustled out by her son Tom (Chris Zylka).
Without saying too much, each episode follows a similar emotional arc: happiness and hope are besieged by the departure’s still thunderous reverberations. Kevin and Nora’s new beginning, new love, new family, and new home can’t insulate Kevin from his past or Nora from the future. Laurie’s new beginning, new mission, and new book can’t relieve the pain of what happened. As the first trio of episodes ends, the characters are all pressed up, once again, against tragedy. It would hardly be The Leftovers if it were otherwise.