Saturday, June 4, 2016

"The Leftovers," Year Two

Mild Spoilers ahead

I'm a little taken aback by how dissatisfied I am with the second season of "The Leftovers," since the broad consensus seems to be that it was an important course correction for the show that made it much more accessible to a wider audience.  I suspect that I connected so strongly with the first season, that I wasn't as receptive to the changes as others who were cooler on it.  There's plenty that I did like about this season, and I'm certainly sticking around for the rest of the third one next year, but "The Leftovers" is turning out to be a different show than I originally anticipated.  

Where the first season was about dealing with grief and loss and the aftermath of tragedy, the second season is more concerned with moving on and trying to rebuild.  So several of our characters do that literally, picking up stakes and moving to the town of Jarden, Texas, nicknamed "Miracle."  It's the largest population that was untouched by the Sudden Departure, and has become a tourist destination and magnet for spiritual truth-seekers and desperate souls.  Central to this season's plot are the Murphy family, a picture perfect clan of Jarden natives: father John (Kevin Carroll), mother Erika (Regina King), and teenage twins Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown).  However, there are signs that something is wrong in Jarden, and the mysterious disappearance of Evie and two other girls suddenly makes that impossible for the town to ignore.

It's hard to articulate exactly what I thought was missing from the second season of "The Leftovers."  All the characters are given plenty of good material to work with, and several are much improved.  Jill Garvey has ended her self-destructive tendencies, Kevin has a great new arc involving Patti, and Matt Jamison's strange and wonderful journey toward enlightenment continues to impress.  Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston have some of their best episodes here.  All the new characters are interesting and reveal hidden depths.  However, there's a lot less time spent with the Murphy's than I wanted. and they often feel like secondary characters in their own stories.  And then there are the characters from the first season who don't fare so well this year.  Laurie and Tommy have joined forces in a new venture that looks good on paper, but the execution is very underwhelming.  They simply don't pair well together.  And then there's Meg's new position as the leader of a splinter group of the Guilty Remnant that is bent on breaking all the rules.  I don't know if it's Liv Tyler's performance or the writing, but this didn't work for me at all.

It doesn't bother me that quite a few of the minor characters connected to Mapleton have been left behind, and that the Guilty Remnant is much less involved this year.  However, I miss what the cult brought to the show, the immense catharsis of watching characters process their pain in various forms.  A huge part of Nora Durst's character, for instance, was the psychological toll that her loss took on her.  Though she's clearly still struggling to adjust this season, the show has taken a big step back from charting her recovery, and it's a shame.  While watching the mystery of Jarden unfold is all well and good, and the creators warned up long in advance that most of the big answers would never come, it feels like "The Leftovers" abandoned a few too many pieces of its initial premise, and kept several that it really didn't need to.  I think part of the issue is also that the show has gotten much more crowded, juggling all these different characters and ideas, that a few important ones were inevitably neglected.

Maybe I expected too much.  "The Leftovers" is still without question a daring work of television, which starts off the premiere with a dialogue-free sequence with cave people and manages to incorporate international assassins and witch doctors by the finale.  It delves into questions of faith and denial and coping strategies from an entirely new angle than it did previously.  It should be pointed out that the source novel for "The Leftovers" was completely adapted in the first season, and the show's writers had to come up with everything this year from scratch.  No matter what I felt about some of the developments, this season consistently surprised me, kept me engaged, and I think it was exactly what it wanted to be.  I'm afraid I just wanted it to be something else.

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