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From 'Lost' To 'Leftovers', Show Creators Embrace Ambiguity And The Unknown

Justin Theroux (shown with Darby Camp) deals with the grief and mystery of being left behind in season 2 of the HBO series, <em>The Leftovers.</em>
Van Redin
Justin Theroux (shown with Darby Camp) deals with the grief and mystery of being left behind in season 2 of the HBO series, The Leftovers.

Damon Lindelof, the creator of the TV series Lost, has always been drawn to supernatural storytelling. As he explains to Fresh Air's Terry Gross, he is particularly interested "real-world stories where the supernatural can and often does occur."

"The question that has fascinated me the most — and I'm sure I'm not alone in this — is what happens when you die?" Lindelof says. "I think that the storytelling that I'm interested in is really talking about death and loss and grief."

Death, loss and grief are all central themes in Lindelof's HBO series, The Leftovers. Now in its second season, the show is based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, which tells the story of those left behind after 140 million people mysteriously disappear from Earth in an event known as the "Great Departure."

Perrotta, who co-created the show and who joins Lindelof for the interview, describes the Departure as an "earth-shattering event," which leaves the characters scrambling for answers that they may never learn. Perrotta says that it's this search for understanding that powers the show.

"I think one of the things that The Leftovershas taught me is just how much people need stories, and one of the things they need the stories for is, I think, to alleviate this anxiety of the human condition, which is we just don't know," Perrotta says. "We're still telling each other stories to make it better."

Interview Highlights

On what they envisioned for seasontwo

TomPerrotta: The first thing to say is that as we've worked on the show over the past two seasons we've come to really like the idea that the Departure functions as a kind of foundational event, and that our characters are in a sense living in a religious ground zero. Basically the old religions don't make sense to them anymore and because this event has a kind of cosmic significance, they are forced to create new religions, and so what we have in this place, the Miracle National Park, is a kind of contemporary American holy land and it's some combination of Lourdes and Disneyland and Burning Man — we have a whole bunch of contemporary metaphors that we think would be the basis for an American holy land in the making.

This event has happened that basically is unprecedented. 140 million people give or take have disappeared instantaneously. It resembles the Christian rapture but, of course, also makes a mockery of the Christian rapture, because it was random in the way that it worked, so Christians don't believe that this makes sense within their cosmology. We haven't really gotten into a whole bunch of other religions, but there's just a sense in the show that new religions have all the energy and old religions seem bewildered and silent in the face of this literally earth-shattering event.

On why the Book of Job is quoted on theshow

DamonLindelof: Job is an amazingly powerful and mysterious part of the Old Testament, and one that I've always been fascinated by and with. ... The story of Job, what God does to Job and why, what the moral of the story is, is still something that people are debating, and will continue to debate as long as there are people alive to debate it. ...

The question that you want coming out of Job is 'Why did you do this to me? What was the purpose? Why did you destroy my lands and kill my family and cover me in boils? I still believe in you, I just want to know why.' And this is the answer, an excerpt of the answer that God gives, which is, if I may annotate, 'Because. Because I can. And I'm just gonna drop the mic and walk away now.' That to me feels like an incredibly apt text for The Leftovers.

OnPerrotta'sinterest in conspiracy theories

Perrotta: My dad was a huge conspiracy — some would say "nut," I would say "junkie." ... I think that certainly there are other television shows, The X-Files is the one that had a huge profound effect on me and my dad. [We'd] watch it together, because everything that they were talking about was a conspiracy theory, whether they were talking about the idea that aliens had colonized the planet or they were talking about the existence of supernatural phenomenon in biblical times. ...

This idea of "What do I believe?" and "How is that belief threatened? Who challenges that idea of belief? Why do we adopt certain systems of belief?" I think the "truther" movement is something that's really fascinating to me and ... the idea of a tragedy like 9/11, for example, where we have a fair amount of very compelling evidence and actual data to corroborate what happened on 9/11, and that there are people who say, "That's not what happened at all, something else happened," that is an emotional coping mechanism, because the truth is so unbelievable, it's so horrific that they would rather believe in the conspiracy. We have characters on The Leftovers who are constantly struggling with this idea.

OnLostfans being madabout the ambiguous ending

Lindelof: I think that the construct of Lost very specifically was a mystery show. That was the bread and butter of that show, and we did it for six years. In many ways, in order to keep telling the story, we had to introduce more and more mysteries beyond the original set of mysteries that were offered in the first season of the show.

But at the same, [co-executive producer] Carleton Cuse and I, we ran the show and had a number of incredibly talented writers with us. We knew that we were building a house of cards that was either going to collapse or we couldn't service every answer possibly for the audience. And I think that while we understood the engine of the show was a mystery engine, the show that we were much more interested in writing was a show about the sort of emotional relationship between these characters, and not dotting every "i" and crossing every "t".

In the final season of the show, probably the episodes that were the least effective were the ones that tried to just tick off the answers to these mysteries and didn't really do the emotional work, because the audience had really come to care about the people on that show.

When I read The Leftovers, which unapologetically basically said, "We are not going to explain to you," or Tom directly saying, "I'm not going to explain where these people went, what happened to the 2 percent of the vanishees. This book is about people who are living in the aftermath, it is the condition of ambiguity that I am interested in talking about."

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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