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HBO’s best show is coming back in 2017, and it isn’t “Westworld” or “Game of Thrones”

the leftovers hbo
HBO’s unsung hero.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Now that Westworld is off the air until 2018, HBO has some holes to fill in its schedule. Game of Thrones, the network’s crown jewel, won’t return until the summer, postponed a few months from its usual starting slot in April, so the production could shoot in the right weather to accommodate the arrival of winter in Westeros. That leaves HBO without a tent-pole drama to prop up the rest of its programming slate in the first half of 2017.

But the premium cable channel still has an ace up its sleeve: an understated gem of a TV show with a fraction of the viewers and accolades enjoyed by Westworld and Thrones. It won’t sell merchandise, it won’t dominate the Emmys (though it should), and it won’t inspire spinoffs. But it will be very, very good. This show, of course, is The Leftovers.

Co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel upon which the HBO show is based) announced on Twitter yesterday that the show, about the aftermath of a mysterious Rapture-like event, will return for its third and final season in April 2017:

The Leftovers will slide into the space vacated by Game of Thrones. It’s much less of a blockbuster anchor for the network’s spring schedule, sure—but also a much better one.

The show, which won a Peabody award this year, premiered in 2014 to good, but not great, reviews. It was thought-provoking and emotional, critics said, but also too dark, too dire, too relentlessly depressing. In a world where 2% of the world’s population inexplicably vanishes—leaving devastated families and devious cults to cope with the loss—smiles and laughter are scarce.

Often, shows get worse in their second seasons, but The Leftovers totally bucked the trend. Lindelof and his team relocated the show from upstate New York to the fictional Jarden, Texas (filmed in Austin), an odd little town where no one seemed to have disappeared. While the show was still dark and depressing, the change in setting and the addition of some new cast members helped to build new narrative momentum that wowed critics. (Who knows, maybe 2017 will be the year that The Leftovers will finally win its first Emmy, with Game of Thrones out of the running due to timing.)

The Leftovers took more storytelling risks in its second season than any other show that I can remember. And no single episode was more emblematic of those risks than “International Assassin,” a 60-minute fever dream in which the show’s central character, Kevin Garvey (played by Justin Theroux), is dispatched to a purgatory-esque realm—in the form of a drab business hotel. There, he must take on the role of assassin if he wants to find his way back home.

The episode is essentially a self-contained arthouse film. Or maybe it’s a surreal video game level. Either way, it just works. It’s darkly funny, utterly captivating, and by the end, surprisingly profound. No show has tried anything as creative or as daring since. No show has been better than The Leftovers was during “International Assassin.”

So those mourning the end of Westworld‘s first season and going through Game of Thrones withdrawal shouldn’t despair. If you’re not a fan of The Leftovers, you have ample time to catch up on its first two seasons before the third premieres in April. The show will once again relocate, this time to Australia, following its model of self-reinvention that began with season two.

And HBO has several other new shows debuting next year too, some quite intriguing: a drama about the rise of the porn industry from The Wire‘s David Simon; a limited series starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon; and a comedy anthology series from the Duplass brothers.

If none of these gain traction, HBO can still bank on the narrative heft of The Leftovers to stem the tide as viewers await the return of Thrones. But after The Leftovers ends, the network will have another huge hole to fill, even if most people don’t realize it’s there.

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