TV Review: ‘The Leftovers’ Takes HBO’s Drama Crown

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In 2016, few series were more surprising or more rewarding than the sophomore season of HBO’s “The Leftovers.” Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s series followed those left behind by “the Departure,” a rapture-like event that took 2 percent of the world’s population and made them vanish. The series was always a critical darling, but the love for the show grew tremendously during its unprecedented second season. With so much goodwill from both audiences and critics alike, the choice to wrap the series after three seasons seemed a little disappointing. However, if the premiere of the final season is any indication, Lindelof and company are still executing the story at a very high level.

This season begins in a similar fashion to the second season. Rather than immediately pick up with our main characters, we follow a woman and her family as they join a religious community predicting the rapture. As rapture after rapture passes, more people grow disinterested in the religion, and soon the woman is left alone. It’s a powerful montage set to “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” by The Good New Circle. Again, the choice of music is superb throughout the season premiere. Still, each episode is elevated when the show brings in season one’s theme to showcase despair – in this case, a woman losing her family and faith. The idea of faith seems like one that will play heavily in season three and should continue to be a driving force for the characters.

Speaking of faith, we quickly catch up to the end of season two, with the Guilty Remnant still occupying the visitor’s center of Jardin, Texas. We are quickly reintroduced to both Evangeline Murphy and Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler) before they are blown up by an Army drone. We know from the previous season that the government is less than accepting of “cults” and the GR has certainly caused enough pain in its day to make the audience slightly relieved to see them go. However, knowing Lindelof is pulling the strings, I doubt this is the last we hear from the GR.

At this point, the series fast forwards three years and we begin to get reacquainted with our friends. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is now chief of police for Jardin and has brought Tommy (Chris Zylka) into the family business. Kevin heads to Matt Jamison’s (Christopher Eccleston) church, and we’re informed the time jump puts us just 14 days before the seven year anniversary of the Sudden Departure. The fanatics are coming to the church, and Kevin asks Matt to tone down the rhetoric a bit with the anniversary approaching.

Shortly after, Nora (Carrie Coon) returns and seems to be working for the DSD (Department of Sudden Departures) again. We also get a glimpse at John Murphy (Kevin Carroll) and Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who are now running a grifting scheme together. They’re also married, which is certainly a new relationship for the show. All in all, our friends seem to be doing well.

It is with the idea that the three-year gap has healed our cast that we quickly begin to see the seams unravel. Lindelof has crafted a story about the mental exhaustion and toll an event like this would take on a person. Beyond going through an event that would be emotionally and psychology devastating, the characters continue to have personal tragedies in their life. The fact that Perrotta and Lindelof continue to take from these characters is, frankly, soul-crushing.

It is this deeply emotional narrative that makes this show so rewarding to return to. Last season, “The Leftovers” was one of the most electric shows on television, in part because of its use of emotion. If this season is any indication, there are plenty of characters that have an emotional arc to complete. There’s even the likelihood we never see the end of some characters’ journeys. With the peaceful view of the world already being called into question, the next seven should only further examine the cracks in the broken lives of our characters. Make no mistake, every character on this show is broken. It’s just a matter of how good they are at hiding it. Despite this, the writing is so tight that you feel for their struggle, and want them all to have a happy ending.

In the premiere, we get a handful of great performances again. Theroux is given the showcase here, and his PTSD-driven Kevin continues to struggle. Issues, such as addiction, literally and figuratively suffocate and isolate him. Coon isn’t given a lot to work with in this episode. However, in the quiet and nonverbal moments, she drives home emotional weight. Even in the quiet moments, she continues to excel. Carroll and Eccleston also make the most of their screen time. Its only a matter of time before they get showcase moments.

The series also keeps up its incredibly strong below-the-line craft. While the series has been ignored on this front before, the cinematography continues to be top-notch. Furthermore, the editing is outstanding, seamlessly blending multiple time periods and settings together on multiple occasions. The series continues to use music extremely effectively. In this episode, they pull from obscure songs by The Good Circle Club and The McIntosh County Shouters. The choice to use songs more than once per episode links moments thematically and emotionally. Overall, the show is as spectacular below the line as it is above it.

Last season, Lindelof and his writing team seemed wholly uninterested with the idea of answering why the Departure occurred. At this point, it seems likely they’ll shed some light, but it might not matter. What we have here is one of the best dramas on television, with an ensemble of incredibly talented actors. It’s not too weird to say the established relationships are more interesting than the mystery. If the show continues to delve into these characters, get ready for an emotional roller coaster. With that in its pocket, “The Leftovers” should remain one of the best shows on television in 2017.

What do you think? How are you enjoying “The Leftovers”? Are you excited for the final season? Let us know in the comments below! 

“The Leftovers” airs on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. (EST) on HBO.

GRADE: (★★★)