Sophomore Surge: ‘The Leftovers’ and ‘The Affair’ provocatively explore the human condition

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At its best, the first season of HBO’s “The Leftovers” mined the beauty out of misery, and the inevitable out of the inexplicable.

Set in a fictional New York suburb several years after two percent of the world’s population instantaneously, and incomprehensibly, disappeared, the show puts faith and purpose to the test. It asks how people react to the unimaginable – how the presentation of such a seismic event that comes with no answers shakes individuals, families and societies.

Creator Damon Lindelof has crafted an existential meditation on feeling that, when it works, is devastatingly immersive. But the first season could turn heavy-handed with its metaphors; Lindelof was so openly engaged with ideas that he occasionally let them overpower his characters and story. The show was also, more problematically, rarely conventionally good. Outside of its trio of point-of-view episodes – which were focused on a single, or small group of, characters – the show had significant pacing issues.

But to ideal effect, Lindelof has made necessary cuts. The second season premiere is audacious, near-entirely taking place in a brand new location with never-before-seen characters. The new town is Jarden “Miracle” Texas, a suburb now drenched in mythology as the one place in the U.S. to get through Departure Day without losing a single resident.

We meet the Murphys, a family of four with an ideal surface but bubbling darkness beneath it. The episode progresses with a measured pace – very little “happens,” but director Mimi Leder injects every moment with a sizzling albeit implacable degree of tension. That sense of unease builds with every scene. The episode ends with an earthquake, and then, a disappearance. Is it a departure? A red herring? Something else?

Three episodes in, Lindelof hasn’t told his audience a thing. Instead, the next two episodes have taken place in an identical timeframe. Both are intensely contained, masterfully written, searingly acted and beautifully directed. The show is mythically exploring location, but rather than promise answers, “The Leftovers” is seeking as much as its characters – contending with what cannot be explained, wrestling with tragedy and grief from startling new angles.

Like “The Leftovers,” Showtime’s “The Affair” is an exercise in atmospheric humanism, exploring behavior from a macro point-of-view by intimately depicting a small group of characters. The titular event is the series’ starting point, and also – deliberately – its least interesting component. In the first season, each episode was segmented into two points-of-view: Noah’s (Dominic West), a novelist who’s married and a father to four, and Alison’s (Ruth Wilson), a working class Montauk waitress grieving with her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), over the loss of their three-year-old son. Alison and Noah began an affair while Noah and his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), were on summer vacation in Montauk.

Each episode would provide separate plots as well as considerable overlap of events, showing how differently Noah and Alison viewed their encounters. And as if that framing device weren’t enough, most installments were bookended by flash-forwards, in which Alison and Noah were revealed as married but entangled in a mysterious homicide case.

Creator Sarah Treem got a lot right in this ambitious, occasionally overwrought first season. Her dialogue crackled with specificity and depth, expertly swerving between the two characters’ perspectives. Moreover, as with Lindelof, her writing felt pure in its messiness, exploring fidelity, romance and worldview with more curiosity than pointedness. But she did run astray. The detective arc never quite clicked; there was the occasional “suspect” that felt misplaced in this fundamentally domestic chronicle. And, in the season finale, a drastic differentiation of memory turned this normally sharp and muted drama into a wild, erratic romantic thriller.

Fortunately, the second season has taken a massive leap. For one thing, the flash-forwards are slightly more engaging, now that ex-spouses Helen and Cole are involved. But if the first season’s final few episodes were far too plot-centric, Treem opens season two by slowing things down. It’s amazing just how much of the first three episodes are dialogue-free – perspectives expand to Helen and Cole, which makes for a fascinating foray into loneliness and heartbreak – especially since they feel fuller and more dramatically revved than anything last year.

Jeffrey Reiner’s direction of the show is piercingly intimate, his camera honing in on motifs like a saltwater pool or an old chest to bury silent ghosts into images and scenes. The characters continue to be drawn with pessimistic realism, but their portrayers’ empathy – and their writers’ intelligence – keeps the show from turning too dour. Instead, “The Affair” is a sobering account of love, fulfillment and self. It’s a free-flowing narrative portrait of impulse – and of how much our relationship to others is dependent on how we see ourselves.

Never less than provocative, these two series remain polarizing, occasionally miserable and tonally suffocating. But that was always the intention. Now, it’s just harder to point to those attributes as flaws.

Catch up on “The Leftovers” on HBOGo, and “The Affair” on Showtime Anytime. Both series air Sunday nights.

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