In 2007, at the midpoint and de facto height of the “Lost” phenomenon, J.J. Abrams, co-creator of the show along with Damon Lindelof, gave a TED talk. In it, more entertainingly than substantively, he talked about his love of mystery, dating it back to a beloved grandfather, with whom he had one day bought, from a magic shop that itself sounds like the stuff of fiction, a box more or less the right size to contain a human head. It cost $15, but within was promised “$45 worth of magic!” Lil’ J.J. never opened it, preferring to keep it sealed and wonder at the infinite possibility it contained (infinite to maximum face value of $45, presumably). It sits on a low table throughout his talk as an almost-too-perfect, ridiculously on-the-nose Schroedingerian metaphor for his apparently lifelong fascination with the mechanics of mystery.
It’s fun to watch the bit now, not just because Abrams is on energetic, motormouth form and his impression of his grandmother is pretty funny. It’s also because of how far we’ve moved on since then. Time is its own sort of mystery box, and where the fresh-faced Abrams of the TED talk could have no idea of its contents, we can watch his talk with the box ripped open and the packing material of the intervening years strewn all about. 2007 was three years before the “Lost” finale would disappoint fans in droves, six years before Abrams would be announced as director of the new “Star Wars” film, and five before Lindelof, to significantly less fanfare, would reveal that his next project was an HBO series based on the novel “The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta. Season 3 of that show debuts this weekend on HBO, and here’s a longform explanation of why I unequivocally cannot wait.
Certain aspects of the different trajectories of the “Lost” co-creators seem predictable: Even on his first TV shows “Felicity” and “Alias,” Abrams was anxious to try his hand at directing, and so his migration to the big screen feels inevitable. Lindelof, whose creative input has always been as a writer, has found his best creative expression in the “writer’s medium” that is TV — in fact, his movie screenplays in the interim have mostly been high-profile disappointments: Jon Favreau‘s “Cowboys And Aliens,” which is a film I think I remember existing; Ridley Scott‘s “Prometheus“; Abrams’ own “Star Trek: Into Darkness“; Brad Bird‘s “Tomorrowland.” “World War Z,” which people seemed to like, bucks that trend somewhat, but it’s hardly regarded as a powerhouse work of cinematic screenwriting art, and it’s safe to say that in the main, Lindelof is shown to his best advantage on television. And the best of his work there has been on “The Leftovers,” which is a show that, before our very eyes over just two seasons, walked right into the central paradox of the mystery box show…and exploded it, emerging reborn on the other side in season two, glowing, reincarnated, evolved.
For those who don’t know, season one of “The Leftovers” is the one most closely allied to co-creator Perrotta’s book (though there are significant changes from the source material, too). It is set in the small town of Mapleton, New York, three years after a rapture-like event occurred, during which 2% of the entire world’s population simply disappeared. So far, so mystery box — the question, surely, is why did all those people go away and where did they go? It’s the central “What is the island?” conundrum from “Lost,” and from the ominous opening credits, with their theologically inclined iconography and foreboding Max Richter classical theme (incidentally, Richter’s work throughout “The Leftovers” is extraordinary), to the tone, somewhat strenuously achieved in the earliest episodes, of grim, doom-laden fatalism, it appeared those were the questions “The Leftovers” had been summoned into existence to answer.
I watched season one sort of against my will and, for parts of it, against my better judgment. It’s good. It’s quality, well-made, well-acted prestige television — it’s HBO (along with Warner TV) after all, and they tend not to skimp on such things. But it can also be a bit of a drag: self-serious and overly earnest, with all its characters trapped like ants in the amber of the story’s “why.” For every revelatory episode, like the one that focuses on Carrie Coon‘s character and takes her out of the Mapleton milieu (which in retrospect prefigures everything that was so clever about the refreshed and reworked Season 2), there were a couple that so overburdened themselves with signs and portents and ominous foreshadowing that they sank under the weight. But if one thing did power me through the sludgier moments, it was a kind of meta-curiosity: I already knew that Perrotta’s book had no “explanation” of the Sudden Departure, as it is called, but bearing in mind Lindelof’s “Lost” credentials (and therefore his somewhat lost credentials), how was this going to end?