In the age of too much TV, Great shows are increasingly swamped out by the multitude of merely good ones. It’s getting harder and harder for us to decide which series to dedicate our precious spare time to. For the full article on Peak TV, what it means and its consequences, click here.
For reviews of our other current top-rated shows, see our posts on Fargo and The Americans. We believe these series are well on their way to establishing themselves as more than merely Great products of their age, but as stable members of the pantheon of All-Time TV Greats.
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I sometimes wonder what it must be like for ants when some kid destroys their hill for fun. What I find interesting is the concept of a vast and inscrutable force, with motivations far beyond your comprehension, suddenly uprooting your entire existence without any explanation.
It’s a terrifying notion, to be at the mercy of powers you don’t understand. Forces that are as absolute as they are beyond your control.
How do you keep living in the knowledge that total devastation may strike utterly at random? Knowing that there is no link or causation between what you do and what happens to you? A world like that is the realisation of our darkest fears – that there are no rules, no logic to life. That the world is truly senseless.
This is precisely the fear that permeates HBO’s epic The Leftovers. Created by Tom Perrotta (who authored the book the show is based on) and Lost alumnus Damon Lindelof, The Leftovers is as powerful a meditation on loss and grief as you’re likely to find in any medium, from Yojiro Takita’s Departures to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Look, this series is a tough sell, so before we go on, I feel I need to reiterate the title to this piece: The Leftovers is the Greatest thing on TV right now and, after its arresting second season, one of my favourite series of all time.
The thing to understand about HBO’s masterpiece is that it’s not set in a TV universe. This isn’t a show where people get into car chases, cops slam their badges on their boss’ desk, guards get knocked out and their uniforms stolen as a clever disguise. No, this an ordinary world, just like ours. Except in the world of The Leftovers, on October 14, 2011, suddenly and with no explanation, 2% of the world’s population – over 100 million people – vanished into thin air.
Imagine what it would be like if that actually happened. You’re walking down the street, hand in hand with a loved one, and all of a sudden your hand feels empty. You look around and they’re nowhere to be seen. What the hell? You barely have time to even process what you’re experiencing – is this a dream? am I going crazy? – and then you start hearing confused, desperate shouting from all directions. Driverless cars crash into each other, the bewilderment all around you gives way to mounting panic. Everyone seems crazed, nobody looks like they have answers. And in this pandemonium you are, for the first time in your life, confronted with a new, horrifying truth: order is a fragile illusion.
If you’re having trouble picturing it, take a look at The Leftovers’ incredible opening scene:
So what happened?
Just let the mystery be, sings Iris DeMent in the second season’s opening credits. As well you might. For Lindelof, perhaps burned by the popular backlash to his resolution to Lost, has declared that he has no intention of ever explaining the cosmic mystery around which the series revolves. Instead, as the title suggests, The Leftovers chooses to explore the hopeless world and the wretched, broken lives of those left behind in the wake of such an inexplicable tragedy. It’s not about what happened, it’s about how we deal with not knowing.
Kicking off three years after this event known as the Sudden Departure, the series focuses on the Garveys – a family that didn’t lose anyone in the Departure, but instead seem to have lost each other in its aftermath. These are people crushed beneath the weight of living in a world where the laws of cause and effect have been proven worthless. The supernatural has made its existence unequivocally known to humanity. And far from being benign, this manifestation of the divine (?) felt impersonal, inscrutable and entirely unconcerned with our fates and suffering. God exists but, rather than providing any answers to the fundamental questions of humankind, It left us only with misery, despair and confusion.
But it’s not as if what happened is an irrelevant consideration to The Leftovers – this is after all, in the world of the show, the most important event in the history of humanity and the biggest scientific, ontological and religious question ever raised. And the characters are obviously fascinated by it. The series shows us a number of alternative takes on the Sudden Departure, each a desperate attempt by a chronically depressed population to make sense of the senseless: the Departed are Heroes, taken by God in a final Rapture evidencing the End of Times; the Departed are sinners, and have been taken to a purgatory to atone; none of this has anything to do with God, this is a freak occurrence, a one-off glitch in quantum physics which we don’t yet have the tools to understand; and most fascinating of all, the philosophy espoused by the Guilty Remnant.
The white-clad, chain smoking adherents of this sinister and ever-growing cult are entirely silent, communicating only by writing on notepads. They are devoted to disrupting the existences of all those who continue to live their lives normally, as though nothing happened, determined to remind them that the world ended on October 14, 2011. They must be awesome at charades. Maybe the next season can address that.
It’s a melancholy, depressed and hopeless world. If the Departed have indeed been saved by God, what terrible event lies ahead for those left behind? How do we justify our existence in a world without a future? What do life and death even mean anymore?
The Leftovers never actually goes out and states that any of this is definitely supernatural. In fact, it is meticulously ambiguous about this. Despite the Sudden Departure happening, the show never really confirms whether magic or the divine actually exist.
So. Here I am, trying to sell you on a series that is bleak, hopeless and depressing as hell, and one where the showrunners have stated that no resolution will be provided to the mystery at its core.
So why should you watch it?
Simply put, The Leftovers packs one of the most powerful emotional punches of any series I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen a couple). As a pure conveyor of feeling, there quite simply is nothing else like it. Sentimental heavyweight Friday Night Lights has similar potency, but is more hopeful and uplifting. And holder of the title for Greatest Thing Ever, The Wire, while often heartbreaking, doesn’t aim for the mystical resonance of The Leftovers. The closest comparison is to current favourite (and really, number 4 in my top 3 current shows) Rectify, another solemn tone poem more in the vein of Terence Malick than Breaking Bad.
A thing Great shows have in common is their ability to really put you in their characters’ shoes. Understanding their psychologies and motivations is a big part of this. If you get those, then you also get the impact and implications of each situation for those characters as those situations occur (i.e. without the need for clunky exposition to help you keep up). You feel what the characters feel as they feel it – you’re in synch with the show. The Leftovers does all this, but it also has a couple of other aces up its sleeve.
1. Damn good acting. The Leftovers has the best acting on TV. Ok, wait, I said that about The Americans. Ok, maybe it’s The Americans. But whatever, they’re my top picks for reasons. Acting is one of them. There’s too many examples to list but the standout would be Carrie Coon (a.k.a Ben Affleck’s sister in Gone Girl – she specialises in roles where her family members disappear leaving no trace) as Nora Durst, a woman who lost her husband and both her children in the Sudden Departure and who suspects she may be the cause of her own singular misfortune. Her encounter with Holy Wayne in episode 6 of the first season is possibly one of the most beautifully acted (and most affecting) scenes in recent years. As a climax to a particular story-arch, it’s well worth the wait.
2. Visceral directing. Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom), who directed the first two episodes of The Leftovers, has created an enveloping visual style that really works to put you in the moment. His quasi-documentary feel and close camerawork places you very close to the characters, so it’s like you’re literally seeing the action from their point of view. Between this and his arresting work on Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg is definitely the guy to go to if you want to create a cinematographic template that gets viewers to really see the world through the characters’ eyes.
3. The music. The Leftovers has the best music of any TV show, ever. Have you heard of Max Richter? The post-minimalist composer whose work has been used by Terence Malick, Martin Scorsese and which helped make Waltz With Bashir into an emotional powerhouse, has composed an original score which haunts, hurts and harrows with each note. At times literally, for season one’s portentous wrath-of-God opening credits aside, his themes are stripped down, raw and ethereal at the same time. The Sudden Departure tune in particular, which accompanies some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen on screen is in itself a work of gorgeous simplicity. A stunning artistic accomplishment in its own right. (I really recommend you check Max Richter out. Here’s my favourite composition of his, November – if you like it, you should definitely try his beautifully haunting album Memoryhouse.)
So, yeah. The Leftovers, unlike the other shows we’ve reviewed, isn’t really about plot, but exclusively about how it will make you feel. And it will make you feel like you lost your husband and two children suddenly and with no explanation. It will make you feel like your partner was left in a vegetative state after a car crash. It will make you feel like there is nothing left to live for and that the only alternative to despair is apathy.
It’ll fuck you up.
So, how committed are you to Great experiences? Because The Leftovers will surely test that. That’s not for everyone. Maybe you have no desire or lack the time to be put through the wringer by a TV series. If you’re looking for escapism, if you want fun viewing, if you’re going to be frustrated by the lack of real answers…this isn’t the show for you. And that’s fine.
But if you believe in the beauty of high tragedy, and are willing to let yourself go and be transported into a heightened state of spiritual catharsis, sit down, turn off your phone, and immerse yourself in the world of The Leftovers. It will knock you flat on your ass.
I won’t lie. The first episodes throw you in the deep end with their unsparingly bleak worldview and oppressive atmosphere, but stick with it. The payoff comes soon, and is so worth it. And the second season improves on the already fantastic base in every aspect, mainly by adding a more focused plot and tighter storytelling. Remember when they were telling you to just stick with The Wire and you’d soon see why everyone was raving about it? Yeah, like that.
This series is an intense ride, but it has a beauty and a spiritual resonance to rival the Greatest works of fiction. Simply put, in the age of Peak TV, The Leftovers is the very best thing on television.