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‘The Leftovers’ Creators Talk Challenging the Audience in Season 2

Consider yourself warned: There’s nothing wrong with your TV. From the first minute of “The Leftovers,” it’s clear the second season is a departure from the first. Make that the first 10 minutes.

The opening sequence is a nearly silent, almost colorless set piece, focused on a pregnant, cavewoman-era human who gives birth after a rock slide seals her off from the rest of her clan.

Series co-creator Damon Lindelof knows it’s a risky move. “We acknowledge there will be a fair amount of head-scratching,” he says. “But we wouldn’t have it done it if it didn’t feel really important to us. The hope is that as frustrating as it may be for (the scene) to not openly declare itself, it will provoke conversations as to what it means and why we put it there.”

HBO programming boss Michael Lombardo says he has full faith in his showrunner’s long game, although he’s prepared for some customer confusion. “It won’t be dissimilar to what happened with ‘The Sopranos,’ ” he laughs, recalling the abrupt fade to black at the mob series’ finale. “This is a similar challenge to the audience to stay with us. And the payoff is tremendous.”

The Leftovers,” fronted by Lindelof and with impressive literary auspices — it’s based on Tom Perrotta’s novel about those left behind after a mysterious, sudden departure of 2% of the world’s population — was supposed to be HBO’s next big hit. But the show divided critics and audiences in its first season, averaging 7.3 million total viewers across all platforms.

The resounding buzz around the Internet: “too bleak.”

Whether this season marks a reboot (Lindelof isn’t a fan of the “R” word) or simply a natural evolution, it aims to shake off those demons with a bold move: transplanting the storytelling — along with the production — to Texas from New York. But the changes are more than just about location: The first three episodes screened hint at a less somber tone, to be sure, but also at a more supernatural one.

“The first season was about collapse and breakdown,” says Perrotta, with director Mimi Leder. “This season is about an attempt to heal and find happiness.”

“We’ve taken a rather unconventional approach, and (those episodes) are really the introduction to what we’re going to do,” Lindelof says. “Hopefully it works. The ideas we tend to get excited about most as writers are the ones that others may describe as batshit, but I like the high degree of difficulty. The worst possible thing we could ever be is safe and boring.”

What Lindelof wants is for “The Leftovers,” like his much heralded series “Lost,” to be part of the discussion — that pantheon of TV series that gets debated among TV cognoscenti. “My goal is just to be in the snubbed conversation,” he says, “where it’s OK if you don’t get nominated for anything.”

Sophomore seasons often prove to be an Achilles heel for showrunners, no matter how seasoned. And shows that struggle out of the gate have been revamped in an attempt to draw more viewers — “Extant,” “Legends,” “Tyrant” — yet fickle audiences often have already moved on.

Yet mass appeal is not the overriding intention here, say the creatives.

“I’m very enamored with what we did last year, and very proud of it. At the same time, I feel like we’ve got nothing to lose,” says Lindelof, relaxing alongside Perrotta, his co-creator and executive producer, in his Santa Monica production office, amid posters and paraphernalia from the “Lost” era.

If the new incarnation of “The Leftovers” isn’t a reboot, it’s certainly a new chapter. Perhaps it’s even the sequel Perrotta might have written. The second season finds the core, newly formed Garvey family  — ex-police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his new love, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), and his teenaged daughter (Margaret Qualley) moving cross-country from suburban New York to Jarden, Texas, in an effort to put their damaged past behind them.

The town is something of a Mecca: Among its 9,000 residents, no one vanished in the cataclysmic event that so rocked the rest of the world. But while the people may have been spared, frequent quakes rattle the town, among other quirks, and they’re faced with a daily influx of spiritual refugees desperately seeking answers. Why was Jarden spared? Is there something in the water?

The Garveys’ arrival upsets the town’s fragile balance, especially their neighbors, the Murphys, whose matriarch is played by newly minted Emmy winner Regina King. And it’s soon clear the Garveys have inherited a whole new host of problems.

The cross-country move offered a restart not just for the characters — but for the creators as well. “It was actually pretty liberating to look at the world upside down, at a place that felt somehow blessed by the departure rather than cursed by it,” Perrotta says.

In fact, it was the second season pickup itself that spurred the reinvention.

“The challenge of the show after the pilot was more significant from a creative standpoint than I fully embraced,” says Lombardo, who recalls watching Lindelof struggle with the pacing and the balance of the mystical aspects last year.

So when he gave the green light for another round, he says, he knew he was throwing down a creative gauntlet. The show had exhausted the narrative structure laid out by Perrotta’s novel, so the executive producers faced a blank slate going forward. Should it be a traditional family show? Should it explore its supernatural roots?

“(Lindelof) is a very serious, thoughtful writer, who holds himself to very high standards,” Lombardo says. “Taking on (a second season) meant he was going to come back with a major rethinking about how this show organically develops.”

The results impressed the HBO exec. “This starting over idea, which is both so right and so moving from a human standpoint, re-energizes the show and the otherworldly elements that make it tonally distinct,” he says.

Justin Theroux jokes with Damon Lindelof.

Lindelof took a much-needed vacation after the first season to clear his head — and says he found his inspiration in the letter Nora left for Kevin in the season finale, explaining why she needed to leave town. “I was like, she’s making a number of excellent points here,” he continues with a laugh.

Some series are locked by necessity into a given setting — “Friday Night Lights,” for example, couldn’t be shot anywhere else — but most never even think of relocating. “But if we wanted to keep the show in Mapleton, we were resigning ourselves to the fact that these people wanted to stay miserable,” Lindelof says. “Being locked into that geography felt incredibly limiting.”

The move opens up new avenues of storytelling — this season tackles themes of religion and spirituality beyond the Guilty Remnant — and also allows the series to shake off that “bleak” reputation that plagued season one.

While the producers are sensitive to the tonal criticisms — “there’s more humor in the show than people give it credit for,” says Perrotta — they admit they learned the series should have been more story-driven, especially in its earlier episodes. “We were actively resisting that idea, perhaps to the detriment of the show,” says Lindelof. “We’ve been experimenting with how much story the show needs in order to be engaging.”

The Oct. 4 premiere ends with a compelling mystery that will drive the rest of the season. Whether the payoff is grounded in reality or something more supernatural is a debate reflected in the dichotomy between the two creators themselves. They confess they’ve had their battles in the writers’ room — it’s not hard to imagine who took which side.

“I think we have an obligation to push ourselves into a territory that’s uncomfortable for us, and that is the most exciting thing about this collaboration with Tom for me,” Lindelof says. “In the overlap of our Venn diagram, that’s where the show lives.”

Perrotta admits he was skeptical about some of the changes made to his book, like Nora hiring prostitutes to shoot her in the chest and donning a bulletproof vest, and Laurie being pregnant at the moment of the Departure. “And then I saw it on screen, and it was amazing,” he says.

Working with Lindelof has indeed converted Perrotta, who flies in from his East Coast home for two-week-long stints in the writers’ room. Teases Lindelof: “You’ve started to pitch some crazy shit lately!”

If this season feels more overtly mystical than last (“We do flirt with genre more openly,” concedes Lindelof), he says it’s just a natural continuation of threads that existed last year. Take Ann Dowd’s return as a series regular. Her character, Guilty Remnant leader Patti Levin, most assuredly died. (We haven’t see the last of the white-clad, cigarette-smoking cult members, for the record.)

There were hints aplenty in the finale as to how Patti would be making a comeback, Lindelof says. “Kevin has this very disturbing dream in which his father and Patti are both present, and Patti indicates to Kevin that they’re going to be traveling companions,” he says. “Kevin’s father had been hearing voices for quite some time. Was he crazy or is there some legitimacy?”

Ever fluent in pop culture, Lindelof peppers his conversation with references to relevant shows both classic (“ ‘The Wire’ was able to effectively shift stories from season to season”) and of the moment (“ ‘Mr. Robot’ is a show that’s engaging with what’s real and what’s not real”).

So these changes, he says, aren’t all that radical, in an era when viewers are getting used to seeing “American Horror Story” and “Fargo” reinvent themselves every season. Whatever he and Perrotta have done is merely cosmetic, and the show’s integrity remains intact. Jokes Lindelof, “It doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, my God! What have they done with “The Leftovers?’’ ’ ”

Adds Perrotta: “I think the show has a DNA that’s turned out to be a little more resilient.”

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