Truly supporting creativity occasionally means giving artists the latitude to fail, and HBO — fresh off its Emmy haul — has done that, rather spectacularly, with “The Leftovers.” A creative reboot ostensibly intended to address the program’s shortcomings has merely exacerbated them, leaving behind a drama that is arty and provocative, but also pretentious and opaque to the point of infuriating. Admittedly, that appraisal’s based on an incomplete picture, after watching three second-season episodes, each told from a different perspective. Yet while season one featured some haunting moments that couldn’t quite offset the flaws, it’s hard to see this go-round recovering to that modest level.
A prologue within the premiere, frankly, will likely serve as a Rorschach test on how people respond to the program’s new direction. Those who consider the silent flashback sequence — and by that, the implication is way back, a la “Quest For Fire” — to be intriguing will likely be more patient with what’s to come. Others will surely find themselves asking what in hell any of this has to do with the series we were previously watching, which focuses on 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappearing, and the repercussions of that Rapture-like event on those left behind.
That was the premise of Tom Perrotta’s book, and in many ways it flummoxed a TV adaptation, dramatically speaking, despite the best efforts of the author and “Lost” creator Damon Lindelof. Simply put, there was too little to latch onto in the plight of the survivors, although the way they came together did create an element of closure at the end of season one.
Still, the producers appear to have conceded (tacitly, if not overtly) that the series fell short, and used this stay of execution to try to invigorate the show with a change of venue. In a truly perplexing move, though, the premiere begins from the perspective of entirely new characters: the inhabitants of Miracle, a Texas town that proudly sells T-shirts reading, “Departures: Zero.” The opener introduces a new family, consisting of Erika (Regina King), her husband John (Kevin Carroll) and their two kids.
Before it’s over, season one holdovers Kevin (Justin Theroux), Nora (Carrie Coons) and Kevin’s daughter (Margaret Qualley) will arrive, having picked up stakes and moved in an effort to change their lives. Episode two goes back to present how that decision came about, while the third hour detours back to Kevin’s ex-wife (Amy Brenneman) — who joined the creepy cult the Guilty Remnant — bringing us up to speed on her struggles.
Despite the relationships and intersection of these plots, that’s a whole lot of jumping around for a show that wasn’t creatively working in the first place. The strange opening and shifting points of view prove frustrating, leaning on weird “Twin Peaks”-like imagery — not all in this town, clearly, is what it seems — to keep the audience off balance.
Not surprisingly, there are still worthy elements at work here, from the casting to the idea of a religious awakening and what amount to pilgrimages to Miracle in the wake of the departures. As with season one, however, the situations don’t progress in a cohesive manner, and the show feels equally disjointed in terms of style. For starters, it’s more heavily scored than most of the prestige HBO dramas, using an unsettling mix of music and dissonant sounds.
HBO rarely cancels series after a single season, and the program’s auspices make it easy to justify this second chance given pay TV’s creative latitude. Still, thus far the new ingredients haven’t made “Leftovers” more appetizing, and its disappearance, at this point, wouldn’t constitute much of a loss.