Why 'The Leftovers' Might Be the Most Creatively Bold Series on Television

At this point, there is no bigger mystery to solve: The show is about the depressing (fine, sometimes freeing) elements of existentialism, which is harder to sell than a thriller or rom-com
'The Leftovers' on HBO.

On Sunday, HBO's bleakly engrossing drama The Leftovers concludes its 10-episode first season (it's already been picked up for a second), thus ending one of the more interesting experiments in recent TV history.

As a fan of existentialism and compelling television, I’m going to miss The Leftovers when it’s gone, eagerly waiting for the second season like other people do with, say, Orange Is the New Black or The Good Wife. (Both fine shows, by the way, and relevant to this discussion only because I’m guessing the number of people who will pine away for that sense of depressing emptiness and unexplainable sadness inThe Leftovers are a far, far smaller lot.)

I’m also pretty confident Sunday's finale will bring no resolution to the central issue of the show, which is "The Sudden Departure" – and that such a resolution is never, ever coming. Which is, in part, why I like the show. It’s also, in large part, why lots of people don’t like the show.

Based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta and written and executive produced by Damon Lindelof, the premise is that three years prior, an unexplained event happened — two percent of the world’s population just vanished.

Into thin air.

Babies, people driving cars, loved ones at the breakfast table, etc. Poof. Gone.

It’s a Rapture-like event but, to the dismay of the religious-minded (in the series and in Perrotta’s book), it’s not the Rapture. Nobody is being saved. God is not bringing the worthy to heaven. All kinds of people vanish — sinners and would-be saints. And they are left behind as well. Hence "departure" instead of "rapture." But whatever it was, it was devastating and weird and scary and unexplainable.

Lives were forever changed. A sense of order was lost. A feeling of complete vulnerability remains.

This randomness eats at the people in The Leftovers. Cults are formed. Debates rage on, everyone tries to add their sense of meaning to what is meaningless. The series starts at the so-called "Heroes Day," celebrating the Departed. But were they really heroes? (A preacher left behind is hell-bent on proving they weren’t.) Those who don’t espouse the Rapture idea certainly believe that those who were lost are victims. They haven’t been saved. They’ve been taken.

This is precisely the ambiguous jumping-off point where Perrotta and Lindelof have crafted the show. And I’m happy they did.

It’s also a good place to credit HBO and anyone in the cable world, pay or otherwise, who believe that the business of television is not just to sell soap by telling familiar stories but to stimulate people with content they’ll actually support (and in this instance, pay for). That’s a valuable delineation in this discussion not because HBO is better than CBS for airing something the latter would never in a million years put on the air. It’s just to reiterate an important fact about visual arts — what’s put out there is not for everyone, but we should all be damn happy such choices exist.

The Leftovers has been described as depressing television (it certainly can be). There’s melancholia to it, a byproduct of its existentialism. But the real beauty of The Leftovers is that the show is about discovering what happens to people when something unexplainable and horrendous happens to them. The answers that The Leftovers seeks are varied and do not begin nor end with how or why the Sudden Departure happened. That’s the provenance of a procedural. The Leftovers isn’t a show about logic and concrete conclusions. It’s a show about what happens to the human condition when you severely mess with it. When you shake it and upend it and give it stimuli and end results it’s not necessarily built to process. That’s a fascinating idea for a show in that said reactions can be all over the map — and in The Leftovers, they are.

Main character Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the police chief of suburban Mapleton, where the quaintness and manicured lawns belie the fractured residents, is just trying to hold on – to anything; his disintegrating family, order in the town, his own sanity, meaning. The Leftovers rolls out everybody’s story slowly — to the point where the penultimate ninth episode, two weeks ago, was the most revealing.

Garvey’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has left him to join the Guilty Remnant cult, which dresses in all white, smokes cigarettes non-stop and refuses to talk. Eldest child Tom (Chris Zylka) has dropped out of college (he saw one too many students kill themselves, succumbing to the seeming pointlessness of life) and is now following Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a dubious prophet who heads the "Healing Hug" movement. Younger daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is emotionally adrift with her teenage friends. Kevin eventually falls for Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who is statistically the unluckiest person in Mapleton because she lost her entire family — two children and husband. (How this happens, by the way, is utterly heartbreaking for anyone who has ever argued with a loved one.)

All across The Leftovers, there are characters that are reacting differently to the Sudden Departure. The local preacher, Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), has lost most of his flock. Patti (Ann Dowd), who runs the Guilty Remnant, seems to have picked them up. The Sudden Departure has fractured families, gutted the community, led to conspiracy theorists like Dean (Michael Gaston) who is shooting dogs all over town, and forced Kevin’s own father (played by Scott Glenn), the former police chief, to seemingly lose his mind. Documenting varied human reactions to the unexplainable is what The Leftovers, in its initial season, is trafficking in.

A fundamental truth about people is that they do not normally start worrying about the meaning of life until they are confused about their path — say, late in high school or sometime in college. But in those instances, existential worries are temporarily erased when a path is chosen. In short, life goes on. However, as you get older (in particular), have children that need protecting or start approaching an age that would trigger existential thoughts (that varies in everyone — 40, 50, 60, as predictable examples) the existential creep begins.

There’s a reason not many television series are overtly interested in this. Existentialism is complicated and scary or boring or overly intellectual or just an absolute downer. Television has historically been about escapism, so why focus on navel-gazing issues of meaning, purpose, identity or — yikes — mortality?

By far the most successful series to tackle issues of existentialism is AMC’s Mad Men, and the neat bit of genius in that series is how deftly it hides the conceit behind amazing clothes, drinking, smoking and a broad range of loveable characters.

The Leftovers, on the other hand, has none of those shiny objects to distract us. Though not every viewer is aware of the fact Perrotta and Lindelof are on record as saying that explaining the Sudden Departure is not the point of the show, that’s the current working bible. Now, the duo may change their mind down the road and begin crafting an explanation (or three) about the hows and whys — that is their right. But the intention at this moment is to unapologetically focus on the emotional and intellectual fallout. And that is, pardon my enthusiasm for the bleakness, really beautiful and brave.

To write a show that is essentially documenting what happens to people when they find out truth doesn’t really exist, faith is a vacuum, life may not have a purpose (do well and go to heaven, etc.), logic is a mug’s game and our time on earth is not just fleeting and unpredictable but meaningless, well hell — that’s truly bold. That’s worth watching.

If, for argument’s sake, The Leftovers finds a way to tell several seasons of stories about its core characters while sticking to the main principle of the series — the existential cry of what does it all mean? — then Perrotta and Lindelof will be attempting something unheard of along the lines of Vince Gilligan using Breaking Bad to turn "Mr. Chips into Scarface" and thus reversing 50-plus years of industry standard storytelling.

That will be no easy task. The Leftovers is darker in many ways than Breaking Bad was, certainly early on. Tackling grief and depression, nihilism and spiritual rot is not really crowd-pleasing fare. And by adding elements of Lost-like mythology, which can be construed as teasing elements of a puzzle that won’t be solved, could annoy a percentage of the fan base that haven’t read the book or haven’t got the memo about intent.

And while I think that conceit is an intriguing tease – putting viewers (and the show’s characters as well) in the position of reading into everything that happens after something unexplainable like the Sudden Departure has happened – and those are justifiable reactions, it’s still a dangerous wink if your overall philosophy is there is no mythology, only terrifying existential meaninglessness.

As for me, I’d like three or four more seasons of that, please.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine.com

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