This Week on Dear Television:
Get Lost: Why You Should Be Watching The Leftovers
By Phil Maciak
August 8, 2014
THERE’S A LIMBO between Binge-Watching and Hate-Watching. It’s called Not-Watching. And, as of fairly recently, HBO’s rookie drama series The Leftovers has fallen into this purgatory with some critics. While its growing ratings are in the same neighborhood as the Bingey Girls and the Hateful Newsroom, and so not necessarily a problem for the network, it’s been having somewhat of an ambivalent reception critically. Andy Greenwald at Grantland recently praised the powerful performance of Ann Dowd by calling it the “emotional ballast the sinking show badly needs.” Matt Zoller Seitz called it “all bleakness, all the time.” Willa Paskin felt “riveted,” but called the show almost punishingly painful. As early as one episode in, Anne Thompson titled her review of the show, “What Went Wrong With HBO’s The Leftovers?” And, perhaps most drastically, Melissa Maerz, at EW, recently declared that she was simply going to stop watching, and thus stop covering, the show after a particularly intense episode.
Maerz’s piece was over-the-top enough to actually benefit the series, as it prompted defenses and responses from the likes of Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair, but the fact still remains that, for a show that looks exactly like what you’d expect a future Emmy-winner to look like, people are having a hell of a lot of trouble with The Leftovers.
So what gives? I personally co-sign the somewhat exasperated claims Buzzfeed’s Jaimie Etkin and Alison Willmore make when they argue that this show isn’t actually that bleak, especially in context. Sure there’s lots of grief, lots of nihilism, lots of loss, and some pretty shocking instances of violence. But the show is funny — both in terms of Tom Perrotta’s great dialogue and in terms of its visual style — and there are plenty of characters onscreen, including our protagonist played by Justin Theroux, who are just trying to do their best with rough circumstances. If this show is too bleak for a bunch of critics who, just a few months ago, couldn’t stop gushing over Breaking Bad’s orgy of death, mayhem, and dread, well then, just Rapture me up.
In any case, if you’re getting bummed out by The Leftovers, you’re getting bummed out by The Leftovers, and I certainly can’t talk you out of your feelings. But I would like to maybe suggest that, even if this show is bumming you out, it’s not necessarily because the show itself is a bummer. Let’s suppose instead that maybe what’s so unsettling about this program isn’t its lack of a heart but its lack of a plot.
Now, The Leftovers obviously has a plot (and quite an intricately worked one at that). It’s about the myriad reactions that a small town has to the “Sudden Departure,” in which a small, yet not insignificant, portion of the earth’s populace simply disappears. The thing to note here, however, is that this happens offscreen, or, rather, in a series of small flashbacky jump cuts throughout the series. A few weeks ago, Kelly Braffett, Vulture’s recapper for the show, wrote, simply, “Not enough is happening on this series.” And, indeed, this is the point. Tom Perrotta characterized the fallout from the Sudden Departure in his novel thusly: “Nothing happened.” The thing that happened already happened. It’s over. That’s not what this show is about.
These reactions have been somewhat puzzling, especially because it seems like we have just spent the past decade of the Commemorative Platinum Age of Television Genius patting ourselves on the back for watching serial dramas in which “nothing happens.” We talk about the bottle episodes and domestic details of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, and we laud them for being willing to show nothing happening. But as much as those shows embraced the aesthetic of the ordinary and did in fact liberate our viewing habits from reliance on twist-a-minute plotting, they were also, if you recall, fairly plot-driven. What’s going to happen to Stringer Bell? Is Adriana going to get caught? Who’s going to kill Walter White? These shows were revolutionary in their slowness, but they weren’t uneventful or even terribly plotless. If anything, The Leftovers is what we get for praising the slowness of those shows.
And it’s a good thing! Does anybody here remember Lost? Sure you do, the show with the plane and the polar bear and the tattoos and the hatch and the series finale that unforgivably betrayed every single second you invested in it? Lost. Damon Lindelof, who is the showrunner of The Leftovers, was also a co-showrunner of Lost. There have been plenty of think-pieces this summer about how this new show is something like a shot at redemption for a guy who still feels PTSD from fan reaction to his old show’s finale. Lost famously neglected to solve basically any of its central mysteries, but instead ended with a somewhat treacly spiritual reunion of its central characters. Lindelof thought Lost was a show about a group of people, he thought it was about relationships, he thought it was about character. But he was wrong — it was about why is there a fucking polar bear on that island?
But The Leftovers is already about character, about relationships, about love, in a way that Cuse and Lindelof always said Lost was. The mythology of that island was too much to bear. The finale landed the way that it did because it was written as the finale to a different show. No matter how compelling the ties were, no matter how much we cared about Kate and Jack or Sawyer and Juliet, that show was always about the island. And leaving it unsolved was a betrayal. As Emily Nussbaum has written, however, The Leftovers is something else: “Lost was a mystery that never got solved, leaving many viewers furious. The Leftovers is something new: it doesn’t promise answers.” Rather than setting up a series with a magic box we want so badly to open, the mystery at the center of The Leftovers is constitutively unsolved. The biggest shocker we could have is a satisfying explanation of the Sudden Departure. This is the show, I believe, Damon Lindelof tried to make Lost into. It’s a mystery show where the mystery doesn’t matter. The Leftovers, downbeat as it is, actually is about the people. And there’s far more to be found there than in a thousand opened hatches.
This is what seems to be frustrating. It’s not that the show is sad or that it’s brutal, it’s that we don’t have a propulsive plot that distracts us from that sadness or that brutality. We have questions — about our protagonist’s affair, about the origins of the Guilty Remnant, about the dogs that run wild through town — but these are local questions, questions that will help us understand these characters not the supernatural era in which they live. Like the harrowing opening moments of “Gladys” — in which a silent cult member has her face mercilessly bashed in by stones and the camera keeps its unblinking eye trained on the carnage — this show brings up the bleakness and makes us stare at it as long as we can bear. Sometimes, we stare at it long enough that we’re rewarded with something like the transcendence that the brilliant Carrie Coon portrayed in last week’s episode, “Guest.” Sometimes, we just have to wait around for it to resolve, if it ever will. Not everybody has to like this type of television show, but I don’t think that means there’s something fundamentally wrong with it.
In her piece giving up on the show, Melissa Maerz suggests that, “the whole point of The Leftovers…is to make us feel things for people we don’t know.” I disagree. I think the whole point of The Leftovers is to introduce us to people we don’t know. This show is all about world-building, it’s all about the small bore dynamics of a place, about the hidden, festering abscesses in relationships, about the love lost between strangers. It’s not the best show on TV, but sometimes I feel like it has some of the best intentions. (And it certainly — in Christopher Eccleston, Ann Dowd and Carrie Coon — has some of the best performances on TV right now.) If the new classic serial dramas of the 21st centurymade us sacrifice our humanity for charismatic anti-heroes and plots we couldn’t let go of, The Leftovers is trying valiantly to do the opposite. It’s asking us to let go of plot to discover humanity. And I don’t think that’s too bleak at all.