I wish I enjoyed The Leftovers half as much as I admire it. If this were the case, however, I’d be missing out on precisely what makes the series unlike anything that’s ever aired on American television.
Like the enigmatic HBO drama’s chain-smoking Guilty Remnant, its writers’ room is unequivocally apathetic towards being lauded, loved, or even understood. Showrunner Damon Lindelof didn’t need a notepad and Sharpie to spell out how he’s moved on from LOST, but his collaboration with novelist Tom Perrotta is a tonal testament to what happens when seeking approval and/or redemption is disregarded in the pursuit of emptiness. It’s quite rare when the only thing you’ve come to expect from a show is that it expects nothing from you in return. The GR doesn’t want protection any more than the “GWR” (Guilty Writers’ Room) wants your weekly water cooler affection. Still, the inability to discern whether this seemingly unapologetic indifference is always intentional makes the series as frustrating as it is fascinating. Wanting to care about the characters is easy. Determining exactly why you should is what makes engaging with this story such a complex struggle.
Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan asserts “Each character is stranded in his or her own bubble of sadness, but most of these bubbles are indistinguishable from each other, and the unrelentingly dour tone of the story makes it all too easy to tune out. It won’t be the first or last show to make this mistake, but those making The Leftovers seem to think that profundity is best expressed through unrelenting misery.” With Mad Men’s final seven episodes on pop culture’s horizon, perhaps it’s finally time for Don Draper to pass the torch and begin sharing some of his burden. I hear misery loves Sunday night company.
Protagonist Kevin Garvey may (or may not) be losing his mind, but Lindelof seems more comfortable within his own reality than ever before. Even when it feels like he may be blowing secondhand cigarette smoke up our asses. Was Holy Wayne more than just another Theresa Caputo? Will Reverend Matt’s steadfast faith pay off as well as his roulette bender paid out? Could the May 1972 National Geographic reveal any more about October 14th’s Sudden Departure than it can about the true identity of the Yellow King?
True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto may have subverted fan expectations by personally calling attention to them, but Leftovers’ scribes would sooner sign up for a woodsy stoning than acknowledge clues to a mystery they’ve never even feigned interest in solving (though the season finale’s director is apparently more outspoken). Something tells me the immortal Rust Cohle would fit in nicely with the Mapleton Police Department. Although here, Darkness has rigged the game.
With ten episodes in the books (Perrotta’s source material has officially run its narrative course) and at least one more season on the way, I’ve long given up on comprehending what The Leftovers really means. I’m far too busy interpreting how it makes me feel. And even more so, what it doesn’t. Max Richter’s soaring score is ironically most evocative when juxtaposed with imagery that leaves you feeling numb (Reverend Matt watching the GR paint over his church and Gladys’s incinerator-bound corpse come to mind). Amy Brenneman’s stoic performance burns hottest when fueled by Justin Theroux’s raw kineticism (sadly neither performer can save Chris Zylka from turning Tom Garvey into this show’s Chris Brody). It’s these bizarre contrasts that keep me coming back for more.
But how much longer can Lindelof, Perrotta, and Co. sustain this level of melancholic melodrama? Although HBO and PETA have proven to be more tolerant of dead dogs than dead horses, viewers will inevitably grow restless. The GR cruelly used dummies to make Mapleton “remember,” but it’ll likely be the GWR’s brilliance that keeps us in a James Blake-induced trance. The Leftovers’ debut season was many things, but it certainly wasn’t forgettable.