Review: 'The Leftovers' returns better than ever

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Justin Theroux plays the head of a family who move to the seemingly enchanted village at the heart of "The Leftovers." (Photo: Van Redin / HBO)

Few dramas have fascinated, confused, and excited me as consistently as The Leftovers. Bleak yet infused by a powerful sliver of hope, HBO's show is a deep existential well of unanswerable questions. As frustrating as they may be, these are the sort of soul-sustaining questions great art poses.

If the first three episodes of Season Two are any indication, The Leftovers, premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO, will continue to shine.

Series creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta based the first season on Perrotta's novel. They reinvent the wheel in the opening minutes of the second-season opener. Instead of picking up the story where they left off (though that'll come eventually) they take us back millennia to a group of cavemen.

In a stunning sequence straight out of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, we watch as the sole survivor of a rock slide gives birth and goes off in search of sustenance and, perhaps, others like her.

She ends up dead in a river, which morphs, thanks to a clever camera pan, into a present-day river in Texas where three teenage girls splash around without a care in the world.

The story picks up shortly after the events of the first season but transports us hundreds of miles from the New York suburbs, the setting of the first season, to Jarden, a hamlet in Texas.

Dubbed Miracle, Jarden has become world famous because not a one of its 9,261 residents was affected by Departure.

The story is focused on the town's firehouse captain, John Murphy (Kevin Carroll); his wife, Erika (American Crime's Emmy-winning Regina King); and their two teenage kids, Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Yvette (Jasmin Savoy Brown) - one of the young women from the opening sequence.

Jarden is a happy, united town and the Murphys a loving family.

But this wouldn't be The Leftovers without doom, gloom, and malice. The town has all but gone to ruin under the strain of an invasion of miracle seekers. Religious tourism is a boom industry and dozens of townies have set up shop to sell visitors a slice of hope - and a few souvenirs.

Meanwhile, hundreds of would-be migrants have signed up to buy the few houses up for sale. If you live in Jarden, it's believed, you'll remain forever safe.

That's where the Garvey family fits in - Kevin (Justin Theroux); his partner, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon); and his daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), have bought the house next to the Murphys.

John is suspicious, even aggressive when it comes to newbies. It turns out he doesn't just put out fires, he starts them. He and a team of self-styled vigilantes burn out anyone who claims to possess miraculous powers.

We imagine they won't take kindly to Kevin. Almost immediately after he shows up, three kids disappear near the river.

This ain't an ordinary river, it seems.

It's a safe bet Lindelof and Perrotta have no intention of solving the new set of puzzles they introduce this season with such skill and grace. Thank heavens: Instead of expending energy trying to do a Sherlock Holmes, viewers can simply let themselves sink deeper and deeper into the mystery.

tirdad@phillynews.com

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TELEVISION

The Leftovers

9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.