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‘The Leftovers’: The Problem With Its Brilliant First Season

Commentary: Escaping the shadow of 'Lost' may not be so easy for EP Damon Lindelof

If Damon Lindelof had any doubts about his ability to create another memorable TV show after “Lost,” let the outstanding first season of “The Leftovers,” which just concluded Sunday on HBO, speak for itself.

You couldn’t blame Lindelof if he second-guessed his abilities. For all the acclaim “Lost” drew since becoming a hit on ABC a decade ago, there was also a considerable backlash that battered him and Carlton Cuse after a finale oft criticized for not adequately tying up the show’s many mysteries.

Maybe that’s why at first blush “Leftovers” feels worlds away from “Lost,” which was inhabited by aircrash survivors fighting elements both natural and supernatural on a deserted island. Setting “Leftovers” in the New York suburbs is a way of stepping away from any easy comparison to “Lost” for Lindelof and fellow executive producer, Tom Perotta, who wrote the novel that inspired the show.

Liken “Leftovers” to “Lost” at least as much to say both are about as strong as shows get in their first season. Were that only where the comparison really ended, however.

As much as “Leftovers” distinguishes itself, don’t be surprised if by the end of its first 10 episodes the realization sets in that while the show may seem to have little in common with “Lost” on the surface, they’re actually very similar shows in some key ways. And that’s frightening to any “Leftovers” fan who doesn’t want to see another Lindelof production careen off the tracks.

For those left disappointed by “Lost,” that might seem unfair considering “Leftovers,” which was renewed for a second season, is years away from its own ending. But let’s be honest about “Lost”: Brilliant as it was those first few seasons, it wasn’t like Lindelof/Cuse had a perfect game going into the ninth inning before tragically blowing it on the very last out. Their fastball was already losing its zip midway through the run of “Lost,” and they were getting shelled far before that final awful inning they called a finale.

Please, Damon, whatever went wrong with “Lost”…don’t let it happen to “Leftovers.”

HBO hasn’t gotten the kind of buzzed-about breakthrough ABC enjoyed, which is a shame. But the reason why is simple: setting a show in the aftermath of a mysterious Rapture-like disappearance of 2% of the world population makes for incredibly bleak storytelling. “Leftovers” simply doesn’t aspire to be the kind of big-tent entertainment “Lost” was.

But those who braved the darkness were treated to something Lindelof only showed shades of on “Lost”: incredible depth. “Leftovers'” wallop of a premise could easily have been reduced to a simple existential whodunit following its protagonists as they race to unravel the mystery of the Rapture.

Instead Lindelof sets up viewers for a keenly observed meditation on the human condition that asks big questions about grief and morality. True to a story that has yet to make clear what is real and what is fantasy to its bewildered protagonist, police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), each episode plays like a fever dream.

“Leftovers” also takes some pretty ballsy creative chances along the way. Several episodes in the first season have the temerity to push the central cast aside to focus entirely on marginal characters, a narrative device it typically takes many years for shows to dare attempt. Not only did “Leftovers” do it with Reverend Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), they’re actually the better episodes.

Maybe that’s to be expected to a show that seems to draw its strength more from the actors at the edges of its story than at its center. It’s not that Theroux isn’t solid as the troubled cop who can barely keep it together himself even as he tries to keep his town together. But the performances that pop are supporting players like Ann Dowd, whose impact as the leader of the Guilty Remnant cult is all the remarkable considering most of her performance is silent (members of that cult don’t talk; could an entirely mute episode be in our future?).

“Lost” was like that, too. Matthew Fox anchored that show in a way never really appreciated by critics who were more wowed by no-name character actors including Michael Emerson and Yunjin Kim. The pleasure of both shows’ sprawling casts comes from never knowing who would shine brightest on a given week because the talent is spread so evenly.

That’s the thing about “Leftovers” though; when you take apart the narrative machinery and ask yourself how it works so well, you start to confront similarities to “Lost.”

Perhaps what the shows share most is a penchant for issuing a steady stream of tantalizingly bizarre clues to unraveling their mysteries, so much so that the ratio of questions to answers can come dangerously close to crossing that fine line between the ability to intrigue and to frustrate. “Lost” gave us everything from the polar bear in the jungle to the three-toed statue. Not to be outdone, “Leftovers” offers plenty of its own odd images, from a crazed deer to a flying manhole cover.

Make no mistake: “Lost” collapsed under the weight of a mythology so intricately built that it simply imploded. If “Leftovers” isn’t careful, the same fate could await it.

In addition, “Lost” was big on mining drama from splitting up its cast into warring factions like the “Tailies” and the Others. It’s a dynamic that comes to mind when the “Leftovers” pits the town of Mapleton against the Guilty Remnant. But as “Lost” taught us, what makes for great conflict for a few seasons stars to unravel after one too many splinter groups, betrayals of loyalty and double agents. Don’t get trapped there, “Leftovers.”

The shows also share a basic thematic framework: a calamity of unknown supernatural origins sends the characters down a road paved by their own sins toward a parallel universe that forces them to confront their frailties while offering a shot at redemption.

No wonder that still resonates with Lindelof, a hero who made his own mistakes on “Lost” but now has the chance to make things right with “Leftovers.” Let’s hope he does just that in the coming seasons.

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