I didn’t want to start “The Leftovers.” Why would I? Especially when every review that passed through my newsfeed used phrases like “somber” or “gloomy” or “so depressing it makes ‘Schindler’s List‘ look like ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’” (I may have made that last one up, but feel free to check me on it). For me, the biggest mental roadblock was this: “Do I really want to start a show that I know is just going to make me sad?” I suspect many of you out there who have not yet hopped aboard the bandwagon are grappling with a similar question. And while it is a perfectly reasonable one to ask, it also shortchanges the show for what it is and what it seeks to accomplish. With the third and final season close at hand, there’s no better time to lay out the case, in the most spoiler-free terms I can manage, for why you should swallow that doubt and dive into this show headlong.
So what is “The Leftovers?” Well, let’s start with the basic premise: On October 14, 2011, roughly 2% of the world’s population disappears without a trace. No pomp. No circumstance. No reason at all. Three years later, the residents of a small, fictional town in New York struggle to cope with the fallout of the event, now known simply as “The Sudden Departure,” and continue on with life as usual. Only problem is, life after such a world-shattering event is anything but usual, and everyone knows it. Plenty of weirdness ensues, but I won’t ruin any of the particulars. All you need to know is that something is amiss and nobody can explain exactly why.
While a bit frustrating at first, the refusal to explain the inciting incident in any certain terms actually becomes the show’s greatest strength. Because the audience has as little information as the characters we’re watching, we empathize with their confusion and desperate attempts to make sense of it all. Plenty of shows use a fascinating hook to draw you in. The difference with this show is that once it has you on the line, it wisely eschews the gimmickry of similarly mystery-driven media in favor of a thorough dissection of realistic characters and how they react to such a world-shattering event. The “what happened?” never becomes more important than the “what now?” “The Leftovers,” in turn seems less interested in the strangeness of its world than in the people that inhabit it, deftly utilizing its premise as a launching point for complex character study and self-reflection. And that, for the most part, is a good thing.
Where season 1 falters, however, is in failing to find an appropriate tone to lift some of its more thought-provoking themes from the mire. In other ultra-serious shows – like, say, the first season of “True Detective” – an aggressively bleak tone pairs quite nicely with meditations on misery and the fruitless search for meaning. But apply that same formula to a show whose world functions under very different rules than our own, and the audience’s suspension of disbelief is stretched just a tad thin. The moments of utter strangeness (and there are quite a few) feel idiosyncratic coming hot off the heels of something like a heady discussion on the merits of suicide. The jarring result often confuses the show’s messaging, as on the one hand it demands to be taken seriously and on the other wants you to take the weirdness with a grain of salt. Thankfully, these issues prove to be little more than growing pains typical of any first season struggling to find its voice.
And that really is the extent of my complaints with this show. Everything else – from writing, to acting, to cinematography, to music (seriously, thank God for Max Richter) – is up there with the best that television currently has to offer. Every member of the cast turns in a fine performance, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to highlight a few. First, there’s Justin Theroux’s turn as the troubled, yet relatable lead. This is the sort of career-defining performance that will make it difficult for me to see him as anyone else besides Chief Kevin Garvey in the future. He inhabits the role with such grace and ease, you’d think he’s been the Chief of Police in a small New York town his whole life. Theroux’s nuanced portrayal of a man trying desperately to hold together a world rapidly devolving into disarray, both within and outside his own head, gives the show a beating heart it simply could not do without.
And then there’s Ann Dowd. What word could do her justice here: Visceral? Haunting? Mesmerizing? All fall short of the mark, I’m afraid. Believe me when I say that her acting alone would make this show well worth your time. The feat is only made more impressive when you consider the fact that she hardly speaks at all. There’s one scene in particular – and you’ll know it when you see it – where I was so enthralled that I wasn’t even aware that I was weeping. I could gush about her for the remainder of this review, but you’d be better off seeing it for yourself. Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, and Carrie Coon also produce some grade a efforts, and I wish I had the time to break down their work individually. But for now, let it suffice to say that the ensemble cast is sublime.
In a bona fide “Golden Age of Television,” it’s difficult for any show to separate itself from the pack. Some offer flashy visuals, or A-list actors, or “producer Dick Wolf” in an effort to draw in a larger audience. But increasingly few have the gumption to produce something as bold as “The Leftovers.” It’s the kind of show that isn’t afraid to play the long game, trusting in the audience’s ability to follow its frequently convoluted logic at a methodical pace. While it admittedly borders on becoming sluggish at times, it almost always sticks the landing in a big way. I felt rewarded and validated by the time the finale rolled around, like the show was saying, “You still there? Good. Now we’re really gonna blow your mind.” Blow my mind they did, as the further you venture into the season, the more you realize that the difficult questions posed are aimed as much at you as they are at the would-be heroes onscreen. And therein lies the answer to what this show truly is: a platform to ask yourself life’s biggest and most unanswerable questions.
To my knowledge, no other television program has ever so fervently demanded serious introspection about the unknown like “The Leftovers” does. Many of the questions it asks don’t have answers, and that’s the point. It doesn’t claim to know what can’t be known – it just wants you to think about it. And there’s a sobering comfort in the knowledge that you’re not the only one who has ever struggled with these questions. So before you decide whether or not this show is for you, don’t ask, “Do I want to be sad?” Instead, ask, “Do I want to think?” If the answer is, “Nah, I’m good,” then by all means, move right along. No one will fault you for wanting to keep your TV viewing light and entertaining. But if you said, “Sure, I could use a challenge,” then “The Leftovers” is a show you cannot afford to miss.