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Leaving The Leftovers

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The third and final season of the acclaimed drama The Leftovers has fans waiting for a miracle (perhaps with an Australian accent)

Then something unusual happened. In Season 2, it became a great show.

Two of the hardest tasks in television are as follows: beginning a series, and ending a series.

Just ask Damon Lindelof.

The 43-year-old New Jersey native is best known as the co-creator and co-showrunner, along with Carlton Cuse, of Lost (2004–2010).

Part of his Lost legacy is that he and Cuse were given two seasons to wrap things up and bring the series to a conclusion. How well that was executed is still being debated.

What’s relevant now is that Lindelof and fellow showrunner Tom Perrotta were handed a similar order, albeit one year shorter, to bring his current series, The Leftovers, to a full stop.

The Leftovers stars Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, chief of police in a New York state town. It is a place panicked by world events. Somehow, two per cent of the world’s population has mysteriously disappeared. Garvey’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), can’t take it and leaves to join a strange cult (the Guilty Remnant). Naturally, their college-age kids are distraught. Liv Tyler, Carrie Coon, Christopher Eccleston, and Ann Dowd also star.

The series had a grim, visceral opening episode. Dogs were dying in the streets. Churches were being abandoned.

While it got mainly positive reviews, The Leftovers was not a ratings success its first season. Then something unusual happened. In Season 2, it became a great show.

The transformation was recognized first by critics, including Uproxx’s prolific serial recapper Alan Sepinwall, who refers to The Leftovers as TV’s best drama. Lindelof was also singled out as TV’s Showrunner of the Year at the 2016 Banff World Media Festival in Alberta. He admits that it took a while to find the right recipe for The Leftovers.

“In the first season we realized we had something,” he says. “We had a sense of the stew we wanted to make. I think it was over-seasoned, or perhaps too much pepper.”

The producers had a blueprint for Season 1: Perrotta’s bestselling novel. The show followed the book closely and the author set certain themes in place. The Leftovers was a series about loss, about grief, about becoming spiritually detached.

It was also about family — about how tight the family unit can be and also about how fragile.

We became a little bit less pretentious, a little more trusting...

“Those are all very unsettling ideas,” Lindelof says, “and I think in Season 1 we just went too hard on all that stuff.  By the end of the first season we started realizing: ‘Oh, there’s actually space for comedy here, there’s actually space for absurdity here, there’s actually space for a little bit of magic.’ We became a little bit less pretentious, a little more trusting, letting the show tell us what it wants to be as opposed to forcing it to be something else.”

One of the big adjustments Lindelof made in Season 2 was shifting the setting from New York to Texas. Production took place in Austin, which stood in for fictional Miracle, Texas. The Garveys and others fled there upon learning that there were no “departures” from Miracle.

“I think all great television has a very specific sense of place,” says Lindelof, citing The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and even Lost as shows somewhat defined by their geography. He likened dropping the Garveys and others into Miracle to taking Dorothy out of Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. At that point, he feels, the world of The Leftovers went from black and white to colour.

Lindelof credits HBO with embracing the changes, including adding Regina King as one of the Garveys’ Texas neighbours. “They really emboldened us to take some more risks.”

That came in handy in Season 2, when Lindelof and Perrotta had to take stories beyond where the book left off.

“Even Tom was excited to leave the boundaries behind and see what happens to these people next,” Lindelof says. “In the first season, he was dad to all the kids in the writers’ room, messing with his stuff. Now he got to be a kid like the rest of us.”

Season 3 brings even more changes. For one thing, shooting shifts again, from Austin to Australia.

“It’s not that the family is moving to Australia, it’s a different idea,” says Lindelof, who, just as in the days leading up to the finale of Lost, is loath to offer any spoilers. “Not everybody is going,” is about all he will offer. Production was based near Melbourne as well as in the outback.

Lindelof says fans shouldn’t look for too many comparisons between Lost and The Leftovers. For one thing, Lost ran for 120 episodes; The Leftovers will clock out at 28. “I feel a lot more in control of the story,” he says.

As for the ending, Lindelof says the writers worked backward, sketching out how the very last episode would play out before writing the ones leading up to it. “We knew the length of the race and paced ourselves accordingly,” he says.

Clearly, he has done this sort of thing before.

Bill Brioux is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and contributor to the Canadian Press.