How Criticism Reinvented ‘The Leftovers’

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Imagine if you could have blogged, “Let’s not determine Laura Palmer’s murderer right now” or “Patrick should give up on Spongebob, it’s never going to happen” or “He really needed to get eaten alive” — and had your opinion-dumps be taken for gospel, changing TV history in service of the greater good?

Generally, before a new season, we can assume that producers and networks band together to assess critical and audience reactions to the former season. Rarely have these assessments seemed so visible, and so loyal to specific critiques, as the second season of The Leftovers. Watching Season 2, it seems less like creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta reimagined their show than that every critical blog post conjoined in a communal, idealized fan fictional doppelgänger of the original.

The process of constructing a new vision for the show based on accidentally constructive criticism could have gone completely awry, resulting in disjointed and excessive pandering, but the creators appear to have had an impeccably coherent plan for addressing the critiques: they’ve maintained a semblance of the show they first made while restructuring it on the most fundamental levels.

The Location

Criticism: Though few directly took issue with the show’s original setting of Upstate NY, there were elements of the location that bothered people: the rural colorlessness of Mapleton led to criticism about how “[the show’s] slowness can seem shallow, its artiness willful,” or how “bleak isn’t the same thing as profound.” The creators chose a setting to match the tone, not complicate it.

The Solution: Send the morose characters who mirrored their morose location somewhere more spirited. The new location — Miracle, TX — is also a small town. But as its name suggests, it is not supposed to be an American Anywhere, but a singular place that’s been heightened to the level of being an exalted symbol (Miracle is a nickname — the town is actually called Jarden).

As such, the show is able to smartly critique an American survival-of-the-luckiest mentality. Miracle is exceedingly exclusive, as seen in multimillion dollar hoops one has to jump through to live there — unless they’ve lived there from the beginning. The revised American dream is to have the agency to live in a place where no one has departed.

But, as is shown in the very first episode, the “miraculous” quality of Miracle seems rather illusory. If the first season was supposed to be reminiscent of post 9/11 America, this new setting does a far better job of it, depicting a country shaken by reactionary extremisms into thorough imbalance. As opposed to the wealth gap favoring a molecular group, the sadness-post-abduction-or-rapture-or-it-doesn’t-matter gap similarly favors a tiny population: and purging it is the locus of most everyone else’s desire. (Also unsettlingly mirroring post-9/11 sentiment: the commodification of the Departure — or, in Miracle, the lack therein — in souvenirs throughout the town.)

In other words, it’s a heavily loaded new setting, but one that, as something of a newfangled tourist trap, is brighter and more vibrant than Mapleton — and all the more unsettling for it. The other day, just after finishing the first three episodes, I wrote, “Setting this (falsely) invincible place against the backdrop of the fragility of the rest of the population, Lindelof proves to have made the perfect move, as his characters’ move proves to be less and less perfect.”

The Opening Credits

The criticism: Season 1, as Alan Sepinwall wrote for Hitfix, had an “overwrought title sequence that presented scenes of suburbia being disrupted by the Departure as if they were Renaissance cathedral paintings, which tried and failed to be grandiose and playful at once.”

The solution: I actually found Season 1’s title sequence striking, but like the show’s every emotional outburst, it was too confident we’d get hermeneutic weight from sheer appearances. Here, they’ve replaced Max Richter’s too-stunning-for-its-own-good score with the carefree agnosticism of Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be.” The first intro had to go — it was just too much to begin every episode with Richter’s lugubrious horn-fart. But it is, nonetheless, a horn-fart that’ll be missed. Similarly, gone is the rapturously animated Renaissance ceiling; instead, we now have a slideshow of quotidian stills of current-day people interacting with voids.

As title sequences are a condensed look at a show’s branding, the rebrand here is almost uncomfortably on-point, the corrective red pen visible behind its every image. The new sequence fits far better with the tone of the season, and does exactly what it needs to. But it’s both commendable and disappointing that the show sacrificed a splashily unique intro for one that’s ultimately just more pragmatic. This shift — from unfitting but interesting to simply practical — seems like the only shallow attempt to strictly pacify detractors, at least when set against so many other revisions that seem so deeply considered.

The Presence of Cults

The criticism: Though some had critiqued the anti-ideology of the central cult, the Guilty Remnant, and some (well, I) had found Holy Wayne’s power-hugging tonally misdirected, the cultic elements of the series were among the most intriguing in The Leftovers‘ first season, and overall the most lauded. However, since the first season was faulted most for its proclivity for wallowing, the fact that it was driven by the (completely fascinating) Guilty Remnant — whose abstract mission was to wallow themselves down to nothing — made it impossible for the show to ever escape this cycle.

Solution: Firstly, there wasn’t much that needed solving here. But thankfully, the “hug the pain away” (no, it’s not a Peaches radio edit) business has become something of a self-reflexive joke. While the first season’s hugger (Wayne) had such conviction (and the show seemed to mimic it), the creators have passed the magic touch onto a disciple who’s more aware of its absurdity.

As for The Guilty Remnant, their “callous performance art” and attempt to collectivize nothingness was always fascinating, especially when led by the immensely talented Ann Dowd (as Patti). This season, however, the show doesn’t just draw on two antithetical cults (the affirmative, hugging cult v. the cult of negation). Rather, it deepens and expands its depiction of American vulnerability to cultic seduction — fueled by an engrained emphasis on the power of the individual, and the contradictory desire for community it engenders. Once Amy Brenneman’s character Laurie Garvey and her son have joined forces in escaping their respective cults, they unwittingly form their own. This season is more about the attempt to dismantle cults than to dive into them. What’s affecting is that the deconstructive act ultimately just reveals how cults continue to reproduce during uneasy times.

The other Garveys’ move to Miracle — sparked in part by a desire to get away from the terrors wrought by the Guilty Remnant — is, for them, an in-denial plunge into the center of another cult. Looming above the whole series, of course, is Christianity. Now that the show has broadened its scope, it doesn’t seem like a battle between people who’ve been subsumed by cults and those who haven’t. Rather, it’s depicting the uncomfortable coexistence of everyone’s ideologies, fighting humanity’s amplified sense of total fragility by splintering into varied extremes.

The Characters

The early criticism: They seemed, at times, underdeveloped yet bloated by tears and hormones, set against a visual backdrop as monochromic as their emotional range, ultimately creating an experience akin to watching a particularly dramatic ballet performed by blobfish. In her piece swearing off the show during the first season, EW‘s Melissa Maerz wrote, “This is a show whose characters cry into pillows and dive into swimming pools to scream underwater…The Leftovers doesn’t earn its sadness, partly because it expects us to feel really depressed on behalf of characters we’ve barely even met.” Of Justin Theroux’s protagonist, Daniel D’Addario wrote in Salon, “He’s not a character yet, just the personification of rage.”

The solution: Literally uprooting the show, Lindelof and Perrotta — now unfettered from their preordained design by reaching the end of Perrotta’s novel — have also set their characters loose in transplanting the series to Texas. Rarely has “more Texas” seemed like such a surefire solution for anything, but here, the promise of this new place reinvigorates the characters just as much as it does the audience.

In Season 1, it was often noted how a press image of Justin Theroux (as Kevin Garvey) punching a wall into oblivion summed up the show’s one-note treatment of mourning. While series like Six Feet Under would have drawn on the uncomfortable humor in the disconnect between someone having an existential outburst and everyone else watching, here there was no laughter to be had. You wanted to laugh as Kevin Garvey furiously dismantled a toaster to find his lost bagel — an overly caloric symbol for the dearly and inexplicably departed. (And another way, as in the title, of goofily comparing them to household foodstuffs.) And you wanted to laugh as Liv Tyler ritualistically axed a tree and groaned over sobering music. But the show wanted you to cry.

“Your sense of humor is back,” says Kevin’s possibly-schizophrenic father in the second episode of the new season — and it’s not just indicative of a shift in this character. The brilliant Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst, for example, now gets the chance to be enthusiastic about something — as she’s stubbornly pursuing happiness — and is even funny while bidding on a new house. The characters are finally in a place where they feel invulnerable enough to have (false) hope. And there’s always more dramatic tension in false hope than in hopelessness. Jill — Kevin’s daughter — now adds smiling and laughing to her formerly thin emotional catalogue. Laurie, no longer a member of the self-effacingly silent, white-wearing, and suicidally chain-smoking Guilty Remnant, is beginning to color herself back in again.

Most interestingly, none of this is even shown until after the first episode, which follows an entirely new family — and one who is, at first glance, far more compelling than the Garveys. Here is a family — played by Regina King, Kevin Carroll, Jasmin Savoy Brown and Jovan Adepo — who live in the one place unblemished by Departures. But clearly they know something about the secrets that made this a (spiritual? geologic? it still doesn’t matter?) safe-zone, and this knowledge is leading them to fight a clandestine battle to keep it exactly as it is.

They start out as a full family unaffected by Departures, while the Garveys/Dursts are a broken family trying to put themselves back together. At the end of the first episode, we see how this relationship will soon flip. In first introducing us to them, it was as though Lindelof knew everyone was tired of the Garveys, and was responding to the worry that “we’d never actually get to know the characters as anything more than Suffering People.”

But by the second episode, he proves that he hasn’t just changed it by putting a Murphy band-aid over the problem: the Garveys are still suffering, but, like Lindelof, they realize it’s time to get over their love affair with it. “We were really interested in this idea of breaking free of the grief cycle. I wanted to watch a show about people who were trying to feel better, versus people who are stuck in this washer cycle of mystery,” Lindelof told The Hollywood Reporter. Too much uncertainty and self-deprecation could be paralyzing for a TV-maker, but Lindelof, who says he “spend[s his] life in a constant state of anxiety and concern” about disappointing audiences, has, in the second season, shown this to be a surprisingly fruitful mentality.