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You hated Lost's ending? It's time to watch The Leftovers

Illustrations by James Bareham

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With The Leftovers complete, we’ve decided to republish this story from earlier in the season. The finale, one of the show’s best episodes, is small, quiet, and — for a show about grief, death, and existential ambiguity — daringly optimistic about the beauty of life. Yes, if you hated the Lost finale, you should watch. But really, the show’s recommendation extends to everybody who enjoys art that pushes them to ask questions and, when they don’t find perfect answers, to embrace mystery.

This piece was originally published on May 1st, 2017.

For three years following the 2010 finale of Lost — the network drama about a plane crash on a tropical island, metaphysics, and a statue with only four toes — co-creator Damon Lindelof fielded questions from fans and critics who were unsatisfied with how the show did or didn’t explain its biggest mysteries. The Verge itself may have provided one the most confrontational interviews, a whopping 25-minute interrogation. It’s no surprise that Lindelof wrote in a 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter that he would no longer defend the show. “I’m done,” he said. “I'm out.”

But just as Jack returned to the island, Lindelof has returned to the worlds of TV mystery and feverish fan criticism. The Leftovers, Lindelof’s first show since Lost, is perhaps the finest mea culpa a creator could offer a spurned fan base. It began its third and final season this month.

It isn’t hard to see what Lindelof found appealing about The Leftover’s source material: in Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name, 2 percent of Earth’s population inexplicably, instantaneously disappears. The title refers to the 98 percent of the world left behind, whose grief and existential reckoning are the story’s foundation. It’s a sprawling spiritual mystery built around questions so big and abstract, they couldn’t possibly warrant concrete answers. Perhaps in Perrotta, Lindelof found a creative kindred spirit.

Questions so big and abstract, they couldn’t possibly warrant concrete answers

The first season of the show, co-created and largely co-written by Lindelof and Perrotta, broadly mirrors the book. Three years after the departures, the world has collectively tried to return to normalcy — or at least is committed to pretending everything’s fine. Then the status quo begins to crack, beginning with the life of Mapleton, New York, police chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. (Justin Theroux). Garvey’s nuclear family — has been split by a pair of powerful cult leaders. His son seeks to erase the pain from human consciousness; his wife is determined to prevent the world from ever forgetting the departed; his daughter just wants a shot at being a normal teenager.

The Leftovers goes beyond Perrotta’s novel with its second and third seasons, and in the process, its similarities with Lost have become more pronounced.

Both television shows use extended flashbacks to contrast the lives of their ensemble casts before and after the reality-bending event at their center. And both shows are comfortable stepping away from their protagonists to spend entire episodes developing backstory of the supporting players.

Both The Leftovers and Lost are fixated on regret, family, and death. Both shows share certain symbols and imagery, sometimes to an almost giggle-worthy degree: leaders in white, men and their dogs, and damp pits that host, of all things, cosmic duels. And both involve late series trips to purgatory. Lost is more character-focused than it’s given credit for, and The Leftovers is becoming stranger by the episode; it’s as if the two may meet somewhere near the middle.

Both shows are fixated on regret, family and death

However The Leftovers shrewdly sidesteps most of Lost’s storytelling traps. How it does that speaks to the ways Lindelof has evolved as a writer — or simply been given the proper creative breathing room.

Lost is a complicated show, a product of many creators, producers, and a large writer’s room with, most notoriously, co-creator J.J. Abrams. Lost was a launching pad for the writer-director-producer’s narrative innovation or catastrophe, depending on who you ask, called the Mystery Box.

Abrams introduced the Mystery Box a decade ago in a 2007 TED Talk, and honed it in a 2009 Wired essay. The core takeaway is that, sometimes, mystery is more important than knowledge.

When talking about the Mystery Box, people often forget the concept is predicated on technology, specifically the capacity of modern computer animation to visualize concepts that were previously cost prohibitive if not unfilmable. In the TED Talk, Abrams plays a quick moment from the Lost pilot in which a man is sucked into a jet engine. “Ten years ago, if we wanted to do that, we would have had to kill a stuntman.” He later points to his laptop, and says he imagines it saying to him, each time he sits at the keyboard, “What are you going to write worthy of me?”

The Mystery Box is a byproduct of computer animation

Abrams saw the modern Mystery Box as an opportunity afforded by technology, if not the result of it.

Abrams has spoken about how Lost’s creators — needing to take a pilot from script to two-hour episode in 11 and a half weeks — didn’t have time to develop the story, a process that can span months or years in the television industry. The network had wanted a pilot ASAP. It’s practically a Cohen brothers synopsis: then-head of ABC, Lloyd Braun, had a vague idea of the Lost concept while on vacation in 2003; the two-hour piloted aired in July of the following year.

Because of the rush, the small creative team had nobody second-guessing their wildest ideas, and because of the technology, they had the opportunity to put it all on the screen. This model carried throughout the series. Ergo tropical polar bears, cosmic battles of good and evil, and, of course, the four-toed statue. Lost borrowed extensively from the conspiratorial documentaries of basic cable: ancient Egyptian religion, extraterrestrial life, global government conspiracies. No mystery was too esoteric to be repacked inside the Mystery Box.

The Leftovers often feels, like a Lost do over — either a rebuttal of the Mystery Box, or its most extreme extrapolation. It asks (light’em if you got’em) “What if life is the ultimate Mystery Box?” If so, if we’re inside the box, then shouldn’t the real mystery be who or what is waiting for us outside?

This is the engine of The Leftovers: people have become acutely aware that there is a place beyond our existential box, but now they must continue life within it.

And so, viewed from the right angle, The Leftovers is an inversion of Lost. Lost is the story of people who disappeared; The Leftovers is the story of people the people who were left behind. Mostly set on the island, Lost is rich with mysteries of this new, unusual place. The Leftovers, particularly in its first and second seasons, is set in cities in which characters struggle to find meaning.

The Leftovers is an inversion of Lost

The Leftovers doesn’t bother with comparably small mysteries about polar bears and secret bunkers. There is no magical island, no mysterious corporation. There’s the United States, its government, and a series of cultists, conspirators, and small-scale commercial ventures. As it turns out, those can be plenty menacing and mysterious. And so Lindelof, Perrotta, and the show’s small team of writers have shown a greater interest in how mystery affects the psyche of their characters, rather than how it appeases their viewers.

The writers take every opportunity to toy with conspiracy theorists. Over the 20-some episodes that have aired, protagonist Kevin Garvey undergoes out-of-body experiences, hallucinations, and a visit to a literal purgatory that resembles the most mundane convention center hotel. But even Kevin, for all his mental unraveling, recognizes when a mystery is silly. In the premiere of the third season, an old acquaintance informs Kevin that a politician shares the DNA of dogs, and that K9s plan to inherit the Earth. Kevin looks him, equally concerned and annoyed.

In season 2, Kevin’s girlfriend Nora Durst is hopeful scientists have discovered why her entire family disappeared. She laughs when the voice on the other end of the phone explains that according to the data, the departure was the result of the demon Azrael. She seems almost relieved by the absurdity. She doesn’t get a resolution, but for Nora, all the pain of not knowing still beats an unsatisfying answer.

The Leftovers has a love/hate relationship with conspiracy theorists

It’s tempting to frame The Leftovers as the version of Lost that Lindelof would have made without J.J. Abrams, co-creator Jeffrey Lieber, or Carlton Cuse, who served as showrunner and head writer alongside Lindelof. But it’s hard to imagine Lindelof would have produced the HBO show without his time at ABC.

The Leftovers’ development and creation appears, from the outside, to be a reaction to Lost’s neck-breaking sprint into production, and its sprawl of 121 episodes over six years. When finished, The Leftovers will consist of a diminutive 28 episodes, aired over four years.

Lindelof has long blamed the lengthy seasons and expectations of network TV for a number of Lost’s problems. The Leftovers’ quality supports his claim. The show is clock-like in its precision and intent. Every piece has its purpose. A seemingly out-of-place flashback to thousands of years in the past begins season 2, and subtly lays the groundwork for a twist near that season’s finale. Mentions of Australia serve as background noise of the first season, but the country gradually moves to the center of the story in season 3.

Even when the show’s big mysteries aren’t answered, they’re addressed. For example, The Leftovers might not want to be explicit about whether a character can actually commune with the dead, or literally hug away grief, so its writers instead script scenes exploring why people would want to believe miracles are possible. Why do we so eagerly crave the impossible? Why do we want to believe? And why do we want explanations for the unexplainable?

HBO gave Lindelof the time and freedom unavailable at ABC

But for all its ambitions and improvements, The Leftovers still shares its biggest mystery with Lost: death is terrifying and it comes for all of us, so what’s the point?

Strip away all the frills, and Lost is the story of Dr. Jack Shephard and his journey to accepting the death of his father, his patients, and ultimately, himself. You don’t dedicate a chunk of a series finale to an afterlife waiting room, if the show isn’t wondering at its very core what we’re all waiting for.

I’m not certain why millions of Lost fans preferred the mystery of the early seasons to the mortal quandaries of the finale. But if I had to guess, I’d wager, for the average person, it’s more pleasurable to count the toes on a statue than it is to remember we all die and we have no idea what comes next.

Lost, from the very beginning, was caught between two separate ideas: the artificially unknowable Mystery Box and the spiritually unknowable, well, existence. Which is to say, from the very beginning, it was doomed to lose in a battle with itself.

Lindelof said in an that 2012 interview with The Verge, “The things that capture my imagination [...] are sometimes frustrating and challenging.” The Leftovers is both those things. But what’s special about The Leftovers, and why I suspect it will stick its landing in the coming weeks, is it refuses to pretend to be anything other than an existential mind-fuck.

This is Lindelof’s true, final response to all the Lost critics, more empathic than anybody would have expected: a loving declaration that, when confronted with mystery, it’s natural to look for answers — even when you know you won’t find them.