Jun 5, 2017

TV Retrospective: "The Leftovers"

Carrie Coon
When The Leftovers premiered during the summer of 2014, it was hard to take writer/director Damon Lindelof seriously. Along with a slew of critically panned movies, the vitriol he faced following the controversial ending of Lost lead him to leave Twitter. To commit to anything with him ever again would be risky. It is essentially why The Leftovers worked. It was a total shift from the supernatural world of smoke monsters to the spiritual world where loss of faith committed the initial drama to a depressing world of cults, depression, vague symbolism, and a quest to understand the most important question: Why? Why was the world the way it was. Over the course of the three seasons, Lindelof expanded on the exploration of humanity not by always going darker, but growing more intimate through humor in a third and wonderfully unpredictable third season. The Leftovers was as much a test of faith for Lindelof fans as it was for the characters, and both were rewarded greatly with one of the best shows that HBO ever released, even if it at times was too challenging and isolating to be a big deal to general audiences.
It is impossible to forget the first scene of the series. As the rapture happens that throws half of the population into an unknown existence, those left behind must witness the chaos while trying to process what they had seen. Their families would forever be frayed, and society would need people to take on new roles. How was humanity going to move on? At the time, it was easy to see what followed as typical Lindelof symbolism with wolves embodying something mysterious. However, it would be unfortunate to think of the series as merely that. It was a story about Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) dealing with his mental illness. It was about priest Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) trying to find faith to move on. It was about the uncertainty of another rapture. The world had become unpredictable and, like that opening scene, it tended to come just as fast and brutally. As the series evolved from the dark drama in its first season to the more lighthearted chapters that followed, it never lost sight of the conflict that resided in every character. Nobody knew what to expect in life anymore. It was the perfect way to leave the audience as well.
It's especially true when viewing the seasons almost as three different tonal shows at times. The first played up the rapture elements with a somewhat over-the-top credits sequence depicting people rising to the heavens. The second, where everyone moved to a safe compound, had a subversively upbeat sequence set to a song that sang "I guess I'll just let the mystery be" as photos of various parties with one figure blocked out by stars. Then the third almost became a farce with a credits sequence featuring the Perfect Strangers (the show itself a recurring gag within the show) theme song. What this expertly did was show the evolution of grief and recovery while showing some ways it's unable to alter one's perception of the world. The show never shied from suicide or graphic images, even as it went surreal and humorous with episodes depicting Garvey entering an alternate world as a secret agent whose way of recognition is to have his genitals scanned.
The ironic way to describe the show for those who find the first season a bit dark and slow is that "It will get better." Had Lindelof maintained a show full of cryptic darkness amid depression, it is likely that the show would have faded into more obscurity than its small audience already was. Instead, it built to something greater outside of the Tom Perrotta book of the same name. Despite premiering with a massive cast that dwindled over time through various methods, the show inevitably became a journey of family and love between Kevin and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon). There was some hope in them maintaining a relationship in this hopeless structure. It's why the finale felt so poignant, even as it was practically a 10 minute monologue describing something that would've been an equally powerful scene. Nora didn't belong anywhere that Kevin didn't, even if they shared often hostile attitudes towards each other. They needed each other, and it's why the cryptic finale wasn't just a Lindelof twist the likes of which annoyed Lost fans. It was a twist as complicated as the faith that the characters expressed over the show. Still, for a show that built its final season around the apocalypse, it was incredible to see it end with a seemingly wholesome flash forward. Maybe things wouldn't ever be as bad as they once were. It's a powerful, optimistic note that only makes Nora's story all the more rewarding in its vagueness.
It helps that the show featured a powerful central cast that elevated the drama to something more poignant. At the top was Coon, whose week-to-week performance remains some of the best TV acting in recent years. Her balance of confidence and vulnerability make her a compelling character, and one worthy of centering the show around. Theroux has also never been better as he explores depression in often self-effacing ways. It helps that the show was also confidently written and centered episodes around them that often threw them in inexplicable scenarios that required their acting to ground the absurdity in a sense of realism. Loyal fans were rewarded with continuity in minor details, and it's likely that this ranks among Lindelof's greatest work because of that. It feels so personal and specific that it's a miracle unto itself that it was allowed to exist at its own pace - even running a slightly truncated final season. It may seem disappointing that the expansive show ended so intimately, but it was exactly what was needed from the minute that first scene played out. There was a need to connect and feel part of something greater. For Kevin and Nora, that was each other.
The Leftovers may not be nearly as accessible as any of HBO's Hall of Fame series, but it more than deserves a place in that pantheon. Rarely has a network allowed a show by a controversial creator to explore such deep and sometimes isolating themes so prominently and honestly. It was at times abrasive, but it was always human in explaining the value of existence, even as it felt like there were tricks being played on the cast. Matt's wife becomes comatose. Kevin murders the leader of a cult (Ann Dowd). There are countless suicide attempts. It was a dark show, but one that cleverly and slowly revealed the light at the end of the tunnel. For Lindelof, the ending wasn't about showing what was on the other side of the rapture. It was about understanding what it meant to still be alive after tragedy. In the process, it created some of the most powerful scenes in TV history, and probably should make many reconsider the notion that Lindelof is a bad writer. He is so much more than that. He is passionate when given the right material, and this may as well be his magnum opus. It captures every emotion in the human experience better than any show ever did. It may be challenging, but it is also more than rewarding.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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