What divine madness could have possibly compelled Damon Lindelof to involve himself with "The Leftovers"?

Why would the co-creator and longtime showrunner of "Lost," who endured so much public abuse from some corners because of that series' finale, decide that his next TV project would be a complicated story marked by despair, spirituality and a complete lack of answers to a sweeping cosmic mystery — in other words, three of the things "Lost" fans tended to hate the most? Why would he work with Tom Perrotta to adapt Perrotta's novel about a Rapture-like event, and find a way to make what was already a dark and melancholy story feel so unsparingly bleak that, when I described the show to my wife, she responded, "It doesn't sound like it's a real show. It sounds like it's a psychological experiment Lindelof did to see how many TV critics he could get to commit suicide"?

Maybe it's masochism. Lindelof finally quit Twitter last fall (appropriately, on the date of the show's mysterious Departure), after spending three years flagellating himself in response to the tweets of "Lost" finale haters, and perhaps he needed another source of pain and discomfort.

Or maybe he was drawn to "The Leftovers" — a show that in many ways feels even more deserving of the title "Lost" than that one about the island filled with polar bears, pirate ships and ranch dressing — because he saw in Pertotta's book the chance to do something truly special. Maybe he saw a way to get at many of the same concerns that suffused "Lost," but without the same sci-fi trappings and mythological obsessions that eventually swallowed that show's reputation whole. Maybe he saw a way to take advantage of being on HBO and tell the rawest, most unflinching, most ambitious version of this story — a meditation not only on loss and grief, but on fundamental questions of the meaning of life, death and whatever cosmic force may have placed us here — and not worry in the slightest about commercial considerations, or about raising the ire of all the people who still want to complain about the outrigger, the sideways universe and the numbers.

Maybe he saw the opportunity in "The Leftovers" to make something great. Because he sure as hell has. 

Even in a television landscape that includes "The Walking Dead," "Hannibal" and HBO's own "Game of Thrones" — dramas so committed to a violent, despairing worldview that they all but dare you to keep watching — "The Leftovers" (it debuts Sunday night at 10) is a show that will make some of its viewers want to slit their wrists. Many will hate it. But there will be viewers in whom it strikes a chord so deeply that they will feel themselves overwhelmed by it in the best possible way: not like they're drowning in the misery, but like it's teaching them a new way to breathe.

The story, as in Perrotta's book, involves a mysterious event in which two percent of the world's population simply vanishes, the missing chosen seemingly at random, with no accounting for race, nationality, age, gender or creed. It is the Rapture, but not in any way the Scriptures have described, and no one knows what to make of it — least of all the traditional representatives of organized religion, who have thrown up their hands at the whole thing, and who have been elbowed aside by unsettling new religious orders.

Of the show's main characters, one has joined a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members dress all in white, chain smoke as a sacrament, communicate only through handwritten notes, and silently stand in judgment of the people around them who have attempted to go on with their lives as if this world-shaking cataclysm never happened. Another has become the acolyte of a charismatic man who claims to be able to "hug the pain out of people." And another is an Episcopal minister who has taken it upon himself to hand out fliers detailing the many sins of the disappeared, in hopes they won't all be viewed as saints (or, as they are officially designated by government bureaucracy, "heroes").

The bulk of the action takes place three years after the disappearances, in a world that has seemingly gone back to normal, but with cracks everywhere in society's foundation. The lack of an explanation for the departure, or even a pattern of those who left, is driving everyone else a little mad. No one knows what this means, for either those who were taken or those who weren't, and so some grow numb (the first episode features the least sexy teenage sex party in the history of filmed entertainment), while others lash out. (Though the violence isn't nearly as frequent as on most of its HBO colleagues, it is very graphic when it comes; Peter Berg, who directed the first two episodes, clearly wants you to feel the difference between the more traditional forms of death and the silent, bloodless, mysterious departures.)

Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com