What We Talk About When We Talk About The Leftovers
Whenever one attempts to convey a love for something, you do so in the hope that someone, even if it is just one single solitary soul, understands you. You hope that whatever words you choose carry not only a weight but a sense that that love is justified; that you’ve precisely – not adequately because adequate just doesn’t cut it when it comes to love – detailed this love enough to arouse the curiosity of someone else so much so that they’ll seek it out and maybe even come to love it like you do.
The Leftovers is more than just a TV show, it’s heroic. It’s a successful hybrid of art and storytelling but more than those two things, it is heroic in the purest, most Joseph Campbell sense of the word.
The Leftovers delves deep into the unconscious world below, strips our heroes of everything they do not need to the point where they find out what is truly important; and in realizing that they gain control over their destiny and are able to return anew to the conscious world above. In essence, it’s very much related to Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”.
The Leftovers -loosely based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta and adapted by Damon Lindelof – opens with people disappearing, just vanishing into thin air. Gone, presumably, forever.
The show takes place three years after this event or “Sudden Departure” where we find out that 2% of the world’s population (140 million people) have simply disappeared. If you were to see the rather grand, rapture-like opening credits of season 1, you would probably think that this is indeed an act of God. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
The show isn’t interested in answering that question; The Leftovers is much more focused on how the characters deal with the world they now live in. How one deals with grief and being alive in strange and unpredictable times are themes that resonate most strikingly in The Leftovers mostly because it mirrors our own reality.
Season one often gets unfairly tagged as morose or even depressing but there is something cathartic in the way the show tackles anger, loss and grief. In fact season one could even be viewed as an examination of depression: Lead character Kevin Garvey has a literal black dog as a companion later in the season. It’s a hugely rewarding 10 episodes of television and complete in its own right.
The Season Two reboot
Perhaps nothing could have prepared the audience (or critics) for the stunning artistic volte face that was season two of The Leftovers where our main characters are relocated from New York to Texas. The show looked different, new characters and dynamics emerged and a new central mystery drove the plot of season two. It’s one of the most breath-taking seasons of television you will ever watch and served as a middle finger to Damon Lindelof’s critics as the rancour over the Lost Finale was finally banished (at least for certain critics, I mostly liked how Lost ended).
In fact, such was the confidence of Lindelof and co that they brazenly acknowledged in the new season two opening song that the mystery of the sudden departure would never be answered.
It’s an arguably perfect season of television and if Season one of The Leftovers was really an examination of grief and how we deal with the unpredictability of life, then Season two takes these themes and transforms them into a mystery (that does find resolution). By season three the show transforms once again into an apocalypse averting adventure in Australia. If the show is a rollercoaster, then season one is the ride to the top and seasons two and three are the thrill ride descent into assassins, magic chickens, cults, a lion sex boat and…God.
The difference between The Leftovers and other shows
The Leftovers is heavy ride emotionally, I can’t lie, but I am reminded of a quote Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) gave to Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year:
“Entertainment is really about forgetting about your life, and art is about remembering your life”.
In a world of social media overload, decaying democracies and the rise of fascistic forces attacking the very notion of reality, perhaps it is normal to want to seek escape but that comes at a cost: We stop paying attention. By turning toward our darkest fears and insecurities, instead of turning away from them, we expose ourselves to a journey that not only offers catharsis but also hope that we are stronger and braver than we think. It’s only when we face these demons that we can move forward decisively and with purpose.
A TV show will not necessarily make you a better person but what The Leftovers allowed me to do was to explore the emotions and fears that were bottled up inside me; those things that keep us up late at night when we question our direction, our purpose and wonder if there really is any meaning behind of all of this. The worried talk to God can become crippling and much like lead character Kevin Garvey, you could lose your mind if you’re not careful.
This is a very strange place we inhabit and in the history of time, we are here but for a moment. The Leftovers confronts this reality in such a beautiful, non-judgemental way that some may mistake it for depressing but it’s the most life affirming show on TV. Few shows tackle the existential and the intimate in such a raw, revealing way.
Huge credit has to go to the wonderful ensemble of actors ranging from Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston, Carrie Coon, Liv Tyler, Regina King, Ann Dowd, Kevin Carroll and Scott Glenn: Each one bringing career best performances and in many cases, masterclasses in acting. And the score by Max Richter is eternal, elegiac and it cuts straight to the bone. It’s some of the finest soundtrack work I’ve heard in TV or Film.
Still not Convinced?
My last sale’s pitch for The Leftovers is called “International Assassin” (an episode from season two). In the pantheon of great episodes of TV – I’m thinking along the lines of Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” or Lost’s “The Constant” – “International Assassin” is a game changer.
“International Assassin” is one of those episodes that TV reviewers have a hard time recapping: Kevin Garvey, our hero, ventures into another world via a bathtub in a hotel room. Naked and looking for clothes, he is greeted with wisdom from an Epictetus placard that reads:
“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly”.
He is presented with his old police uniform and another more stylish ensemble. Kevin opts for the more stylish garb and is soon informed he is no longer Kevin Garvey but is now Kevin Harvey: International Assassin.
In this episode, he has to kill an old foe, he communicates with his father in Australia via a TV set, he meets God (possibly) and then he has to push (and effectively kill) a little girl into a magic well. It’s pretty bonkers but it never loses sight of the emotional stakes and it is quite simply an astounding hour of television. But more than that, it goes deep into the subconscious and asks some difficult questions of our hero and by proxy, us.
Kevin chooses the façade of an international assassin rather than the family man cop with responsibilities that he really is because a James Bond-esque character is precisely the antithesis of that: Being ruthless, cool and having a life filled with meaningless sex and no responsibilities is vaguely attractive on the surface but it’s ultimately empty and devoid of warmth.
But therein lies the contradiction, we sometimes want to run away from responsibility and stability and embrace nihilism perhaps because we don’t truly know ourselves. Pain and doubt are part and parcel of life and some of us don’t always know how to face that. There is something attractive in escape just like it is easier to destroy than to build and Kevin has to venture into some dark places to find out who he really is.
The Leftovers and perspective
The stories that we tell ourselves define us and in many ways, what you bring to The Leftovers is as important as what the show can give to you. The genius part of the show is that a person of faith and an atheist can watch The Leftovers and come away with completely different interpretations of what they’ve just witnessed; and not because the show is somehow vague or elusive in its story-telling but because the show embraces perspective. Many of the truths that we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view and The Leftovers acknowledges this truth repeatedly.
For a show well versed in religion, myths and mysteries, the biggest lesson the show imparts is a fundamentally human one:
In the end the one of the bravest things you can ever do is tell someone who you really are and how you really feel: Allowing yourself to be vulnerable even if you might get hurt in the process. That’s truly heroic and the mysteries of why and what for don’t really amount to much in the end because, all we know for sure is, each other is all we’ve got. Nothing else matters.
The Complete Boxset of The Leftovers (Season 1-3) is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.