Last year, audiences had mixed responses to the season's buzziest Sunday night cable offerings, with Showtime’s “The Affair” and HBO’s “The Leftovers” winning both staunch admirers and vehement detractors over the course of their initial runs. While some praised “The Leftovers” for its inventive storytelling and evocative performances, others found it overly gloomy and cryptic to the point of being inaccessible. Likewise, while “The Affair” racked up Golden Globes for best drama series and for lead actress Ruth Wilson, many critics seemed to grow tired of the self-indulgent central romance. I was on the fence about both: intrigued and cautiously optimistic, yet not entirely invested in the stories the creators were trying to tell.
But tuning in to the second season premieres of both shows last night offered pleasant surprises. Both shows have expanded their narrative scope — new perspectives in “The Affair,” new characters and a new location in “The Leftovers" — in ways that seem to respond directly to some of the criticisms of their first seasons. While reboots on TV shows are common (“Homeland,” another returning drama, seems to be trying to wipe the chalkboard clean pretty much every season), both of these shows seem unusually cued in to what it was that made them special -- and, subsequently, what they can afford to leave behind.
Let’s start with “The Leftovers.” In season two, the show trades Mapleton, New York, for Jarden, Texas (aka Miracle), a town that miraculously didn’t lose any of its inhabitants in The Sudden Departure. It also introduces a new central family, the Murphys (the Garveys end up moving in next door, but not until much later in the episode).
From the beginning, the difference in tone from last season is striking. Gone are season one's gloomy credits, which depicted figures, in the style of a Renaissance painting, being ripped from one another’s arms to the strains of a mournful violin backdrop. In the season two credits, Iris DeMent’s folksy, buoyant track “Let the Mystery Be" soundtracks a series of candid snapshots of friends and families: typical scenes of daily life, but for the fact that in each image, figures are missing, rendered only as translucent silhouettes. (The song’s title, meanwhile, seems like a wink and nod to Damon Lindelof’s repeated insistence that he’s not looking to “solve” the Departure.)
In a recent Vulture interview, Lindelof explains that he changed the title sequence partly in response to online backlash (as the “Lost” creator points out, he is no stranger to being pilloried online for his narrative choices) but also because it is more self-aware, as well as “tonally more in line with what I want the show to be.” As Lindelof explains, the new title sequence “can express seriousness and loss. But it can also express other ideas. It can have smiling faces, as opposed to anguished faces. It can have real faces, as opposed to painted faces.”
This openness to new ideas is evident throughout the episode. While Mapleton was a living mausoleum, a town whose inhabitants walked around crushed by the weight of their grief, there is a lightness to the early scenes in Miracle. Evie Murphy frolics with friends in a lake. Buses of tourists come to revel in the town’s optimism. There is laughter, singing, electronic music. Season one of “The Leftovers” was not just about loss but also its flip-side — finding a way to start over — and season two appears much more concerned with exploring that latter element, at least to start with.
Of course, it’s not all rainbows and spring-water. The premiere ends with a tragedy, while an ambitious, wordless, nine-minute opening sequence set in the caveman era will certainly irk those who found the first season a little too Terrence Malick-y for their liking. But the most interesting aspect of “The Leftovers” is how the high-concept premise can be brought down to a human level, and how the global cataclysm of the Sudden Departure serves as a springboard to explore personal stories of loss, as well as to interrogate how human beings adapt and find meaning in the wake of tragedy. In broadening the show's world and introducing new characters with new outlooks, the show’s innovative premise stands to be built out in an even more creative and compelling way.
“The Affair” has also undergone an expansion in scope. While season one told the stories of an affair from the perspective of its two participants, Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), season two expands to include the perspective of the jilted exes Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson).
Season one was at its best when it used the "Rashomon" effect to explore the nuances of memory and perception that shape our interactions with others, and at its worse when it devolved into cheap shock-and-awe melodrama. The whole murder business still has to play out, but last night's episode was much more focused on the psychological ripple effects of Alison and Noah’s affair than last season’s tedious game of Who Killed Scotty Lockhart. By bringing Helen and Cole into the fold, the show seems committed to the nuanced human drama that made the show so compelling at its start.
As show-runner Sarah Treem told THR, “the whole idea of the first season is that [Noah and Alison] could be together, so they were always on opposite sides of a field looking into the middle trying to understand each other. But now the characters that are actually estranged from each other are no longer Noah and Alison, they are Helen and Noah. Then it became clear that a lot of the storytelling — the paradox that is the engine of the show — was going to lie in the relationships between the estranged characters, which are now the ex-spouses.”
The season premiere (and the second episode, which focuses on Alison and Cole) adeptly broadened the scope of the show and refocused itself by putting these complex relationship dynamics at the forefront. Bringing Maura Tierney's Helen in as a narrator was a particularly smart choice, mostly because Tierney is such an appealing actress (indeed, both Helen and Cole are arguably more likable than their exes), but also because her character -- wounded, prideful, self-medicating, stoic, compassionate, loving Helen -- feels nuanced and fully-realized in a way that Noah and Alison sometimes didn't during season one.
In particular, the mediation scene, the only scene that we saw play out twice in the premiere, showed how effective the doubled perspective can be when complex emotions are at stake. Many of Noah and Alison’s POV scenes in season one diverged from each other so much that they felt ludicrous, or else they seemed unnecessarily obvious, serving more to bolster the characters' own rose-tinted views of themselves than to say anything meaningful about their relationship.
Seeing how Noah and Helen perceive each other is much more interesting because of their deep shared history. Across the mediation table, we see their marriage as a power struggle, a complexly calibrated performance rooted in years spent playing off one another. They have each built roles for themselves in opposition to their partners, roles that have codified and warped over time: The entitled princess vs. the principled idealist; the stable provider vs. the selfish deadbeat. While it was interesting, at times, watching Alison and Noah get to know each other, it’s even more interesting to watch characters who thought they knew each other so well -- characters who built a life together -- be confronted by the crumbling of the facade they built together. Or, as Helen puts it, leaving the session: “You're so selfish. How did I not see that, all these years?”
If “The Leftovers'” new season is about the possibility of moving on in the wake of tragedy, “The Affair” is about the wounds that remain open even when a chapter closes. Whether these ambitious narrative changes will build to a satisfying conclusion is an open question, but it's worth sticking around to find out.