Hidden in Plain View: “The Leftovers”
Hidden in Plain View is a bi-weekly column where I help you find great shows buried in the clutter that is modern television. With more than 400 original scripted series on TV in 2015 alone, it is simply a fact that you’re missing out on something great. Previously on: “Mr. Robot,” “Review,” “Rectify,” “BoJack Horseman,” “UnREAL” and “Rick and Morty.” This time: “The Leftovers.”
Damon Lindelof is the epitome of the tortured artist. His various hopes, doubts, fears and existential crises are not only apparent in his work but seem to be an essential part of it. He is also “a zealous consumer of culture writing,” and as one of the co-creators and writers of “Lost,” which had one of the most controversial and widely panned finales of all time, this can be a dangerous balance. He makes deeply personal art, and he wants to know what people think.
He tried self-deprecation. He retweeted many of the people who bashed him and the “Lost” ending. His Twitter bio read: “I’m one of the idiots behind ‘Lost.’ And no, I don’t understand it, either.” He was very open about how the reaction to the show affected him.
And then he finally took a reprieve. Lindelof accepted that he wouldn’t be able to change people’s minds and left Twitter.
“I do not like the feeling that I experience when people talk about how much ‘Lost’ sucked,” he told the New York Times. “I can no longer acknowledge it. I spent three years acknowledging it. I hear you. I understand. I get it. I’m not in denial about it. That said, I can’t continue to be this persona. I can’t continue to acknowledge you, because acknowledging you invites more of it, and it really hurts my feelings. Nobody cares that my feelings are hurt. It’s my job for my feelings to not get hurt.”
When Lindelof returned last summer to adapt Tom Perrotta’s novel “The Leftovers” for HBO, expectations were all over the place. Some were excited that one of television’s most captivating and personal storytellers had returned. Others were annoyed that a man who gave so few satisfying answers to “Lost” was making a show that seemed designed to raise even more questions.
The show opened three years after an event called the Sudden Departure, where 140 million people – or 2 percent of the world’s population – simultaneously and inexplicably disappeared. Subsequently, everyone’s perception of the idea that life could end at any time is heightened dramatically.
“The Leftovers” focuses on a family from Mapleton, New York, that lost no one during the Departure but was divided sharply afterward. Kevin Garvey, chief of the Mapleton Police Department, slowly begins to unravel after his wife, Laurie, leaves to join a cult named the Guilty Remnant and his son, Tommy, shacks up with a bunch of disciples of an eccentric man named Holy Wayne. Garvey’s daughter, Jill, is also pushing away, rebelling with other teenagers in what can only be described as a disturbing and odd post-Departure kind of way. The show also tells the story of Nora Durst, whose entire family disappeared during the Departure, and Matt Jamison, a reverend struggling with the fact that many sinners disappeared as well.
The performances across the board are great, and there is a lot of mystery and intrigue. Lindelof seems to be an expert at telling story concisely and effectively. But frankly, I don’t think anything from the last two paragraphs will help you determine whether you will want to watch “The Leftovers.”
Think of it this way: “The Leftovers” is a show about people dealing with an event that actualizes temporality in a way that can’t be ignored. It is a show detailing the ways life might change if everyone was constantly aware of their own mortality. As a species, our greatest talent might be pushing thoughts of our own demise to the backs of our minds. “The Leftovers” refuses to let you do so.
Lindelof has also made it abundantly clear that this is not a show about finding out what caused the Sudden Departure. It isn’t even really a show about answers at all. “The Leftovers” is a show about questions. And the question for you, the viewer, is whether you want your television shows to be tackling deep, existential questions, hour by painstaking hour.*
*Don’t get me wrong, though. There are moments when this show just zips along. The eighth episode of the second season (“International Assassin”), in particular, is one of the most bizarre, strange, peculiar, wacky, off-the-wall, jaw-on-the-floor, entertaining and fantastic hours of television I’ve ever seen.
“The Leftovers” is a probing and vivid reminder that anyone can vanish at any time without explanation. In the case of the Sudden Departure, this kind of realization massively shakes the faith and beliefs of everyone. But when you think about it, is this all that different from the world we know? We live in a world where loved ones can die without saying goodbye. Where someone can walk into a church and kill several members of a prayer group because they are black. Where twisted ideologies can lead to a group of people trying to blow up an entire city. It’s hard to ignore the thought that something is wrong with our world.
Lindelof wants to remind us that, at the very least, we’re all in it together. “The Leftovers” is a show about finding companionship in each other. It’s a show about finding salvation through those we love. It’s a show about deeply considering our place in the universe, and it’s a show about our hunt for answers. But it’s also about the fact that we just might not find any.
As you can imagine, such large questions weigh on someone like Lindelof.
“Why do I do this to myself?” Lindelof asked during an interview with Alan Sepinwall in September. “The answer is, this is what’s interesting to me. This is the story I’m compelled to tell.”
The first two seasons of “The Leftovers” (10 episodes each) are available on HBO Go (cable subscribers) and HBO Now (non-subscribers with monthly fee). The show was renewed for a third (and final) season last week, expected to air in 2016. Check it out, and let us know what you think.