As the broader appreciation for TV has improved, expectations for final seasons have grown exponentially. We live in a cultural moment where nearly all scripted shows — including sitcoms — must "stick the landing," or suffer the never-ending scorn of the disenfranchised on social media. No show and no showrunner have suffered this fate quite like Lost and its co-creator Damon Lindelof.
In many ways, the final season of Lost foreshadowed how we'd come to treat too many subsequent shows. Five seasons of compelling, confounding storytelling begat millions of words on theories, sub-theories, and fan wikis, which begat unbelievable expectations. The ABC drama's closing episodes never could have met those expectations. They're better than you remember, but it's hard to view them through any other prism because you can feel the expectations weighing them down.
Lindelof has been open about how the hostile response to Lost's sixth season messed him up, to the point where it seeped into the already overwhelming misery of the first season of his current show The Leftovers. If the second season — one of the best single seasons of TV ever — was Lindelof rediscovering his mojo, then this final season is Lindelof truly letting it rip, and producing the kind of stretch run you wanted from Lost all along.
For those predisposed to make comparisons, there's quite a lot in The Leftovers' final season (which begins this Sunday on HBO at 9/8c) that might remind you of Lost. After intermittently utilizing the Lost approach of focusing on one or two characters per episode in the first two seasons of The Leftovers, Season 3 commits it to more clearly. Characters take a sojourn to Australia and they watch videos starring strangers that may unveil answers to a new supposed mystery. Kevin (Justin Theroux) continues down his "great man denying the call to action" a la Jack Shepherd (Matthew Fox). There's weirdness involving kids, important conversations on airplanes, and so much searching for meaning in the (now extended) aftermath of the Sudden Departure, the show's central event where two percent of the world's population disappeared in an instant.
But whereas Lost's final episodes were required to attempt to answer or provide resolution to dozens of questions, The Leftovers is utterly, gloriously free to do whatever the hell it wants. It has long moved past Tom Perrotta's novel and the world building continues to aid the series' intrigue. Most impressively, pre-existing storylines are taken to fantastic, oftentimes amusing extremes.
There aren't real "answers" coming about why or how people departed. But that hasn't stopped Lindelof, Perrotta, lead director Mimi Leder, and the rest of the creative team from playing with that idea every season.\
The show's timeline is coming up on the seven-year anniversary of the Departure and, like many of the characters, Nora (Carrie Coon) continues to struggle with the loss of her children, especially when she encounters a sudden "answer" that she knows is probably nonsense but can't help but be hopeful for. The particulars of how Nora, a government employee tasked with verifying the veracity of Departure-related events, encounters and hunts down this surprisingly sci-fi-tinged outcome is one of the series' more powerful — and odd — pursuits.
Kevin's mind-bending walkabout escalates as well. While Lost offered thinly-veiled nods toward Jack or Locke (Terry O'Quinn) as classic savior figures or fumbled its way through metaphors made literal — the island has a cork at the center preventing all the evil from being released! — The Leftovers just comes right out and asks the questions. For instance: Is Kevin Garvey, a man who has repeatedly died and come back to life, the next Jesus? If he is, shouldn't someone write A New New Testament? And if so, what does that even look like?
On the surface, that may sound like a silly idea. But in execution, The Leftovers makes certain to deflate most of the self-importance that would come with figuring out if there is a way to find the people who departed, or learning that you're probably the rebooted Jesus (complete with a dope beard). Not only is Kevin uncomfortable with the suggestion, but other characters, including his long-time partner Nora, make fun of him for it.
Meanwhile, when the show steps away from the leads, it can get even wilder. One of the early episodes focuses almost exclusively on Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn), a character with the potent combination of a loose grasp on reality and the drive to save the world. It's one of the most unusual episodes of TV you'll see this year, one that makes a strange story even stranger. Contrast that with some of the late-era Lost episodes about characters like Richard (Nestor Carbonell) or Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), which were ponderous — if occasionally moving — affairs that couldn't escape their purpose as a final piece snapping into the puzzle.
It's not as if Lost didn't have comedic or surreal moments in the final season, but it certainly didn't have enough time for them. The stakes were too high, both on-screen and off. With The Leftovers, the stakes are still real — the upcoming anniversary is supposedly going to bring another Great Departure — but the show still manages to find time to address how someone crafted an inflatable statue in honor of the departed Gary Busey.
In truth, the differences in the final seasons of Lost and The Leftovers come down to those expectations. As an enormous worldwide success, Lost had no choice but to play out its final season as it did. As a barely watched and short-lived HBO drama, The Leftovers doesn't have anyone or anything to answer for. But if these final episodes are any indication, more shows should have that luxury and that freedom.
The Leftovers begins its final season on Sunday, Apr. 16 at 9/8c on HBO.