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The Leftovers, Season 1

Damon Lindelof is no stranger to mystery and the unexplained. As one of the showrunners of Lost, which I named last week my favorite drama program of all-time, his entire world revolved around the island and the survivors of Oceanic 815. Whether you approved of the resolution or not, the ride was a blast. Lindelof, criticized along with his producing partner Carlton Cuse, have both moved on with success. Luckily for us, Damon chose to help adapt a fairly successful book.

In front of me on the table, Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” sits neatly, waiting to be opened. It isn’t a long work of fiction, but I picked it up a while back and made the decision not to read it until after the first season of the HBO series of the same name. It was a conscious choice and now that the finale has aired, I’m so happy I waited. If you follow me @GuyNamedJason, I’ll update you when I finish the novel.

Last week’s piece on Lost generated more response than any since I began with Outkick, and it was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few who disagreed because of the show’s ending or various other reasons, but so many people wrote me or tweeted me simply to say I hit a similar chord to their own feelings on the show. I’m grateful to everyone who read the list, enjoyed any part of it, and everyone who took the time to respond to me on it. Lost made The Leftovers a foregone conclusion for me. It’s not that I expected the new show to be the old show. It’s that Damon Lindelof won me over for life a long time ago. That stance has only improved with the first season of HBO’s newest bravo-worthy drama.

In the next few weeks, we’ll begin a new list, this time focusing on comedy, but today I wanted to delve deeper into Lindelof’s newest effort and take a look at the season in its entirety. While it would be perfectly fine to rate each episode, and I will, next year, I instead feel compelled to write about my emotions and the questions and answers of The Leftovers.

The Leftovers is a Rapture-like story, but not necessarily a story of “The” Rapture. Two percent of the world’s population vanishes, leaving behind a confused mass of people whose lives immediately change. Three years pass, then the series begins. We see the world moments after the great departure, but the show isn’t focused on that time frame initially. The story isn’t about the answers.

The Leftovers is about the reality.

While the ratings weren’t shockingly high, the quality of the show absolutely was. The concept of the book and the series is both engaging and horrifying. What if your wife vanished along with your son, seemingly into thin air? Worse, what if you were cheating on your wife, as Kevin Garvey was, and seconds after the adulterous act your mistress disappeared. If you were left behind, how would you deal with your circumstances? Perhaps you had an early morning argument with your family, were self-involved, or even yelled at your daughter as she spilled her juice, making her cry, as Nora Durst did. Your husband might have been fixated on another woman. You turn your back to answer the phone or open a cabinet, turn around and your husband and both your children are simply – gone.

What I constantly find myself asking while watching The Leftovers is what I would do if I were one of these people. Would I care about the WHY or would I fall into some deep depression or degenerate tendency. The series showed us these people and in glimpses, some long and some short, showed the “chosen ones.” The show treated flashbacks in such a similar fashion to Lost, particularly in the episode-long story of Nora Durst and her mistaken identity, and in what was a breathtaking few minutes of television, letting us see the Rapture-like event, but only from the perspective of the leftovers themselves. We saw no one float away or melt or turn to dust. They were there; then they weren’t. Past the flashbacks, we’ve gotten character specific episodes, like Matt’s quest to obtain the money to keep his church.

When you watch, what do you see? What do you ask yourself? Who do you identify with and how terrifying is The Leftovers’ narrative. Are you Matt Jamison? Do you continue to preach the gospel, pray to your God, and attempt to convert or help those who remain lost? Are you Kevin Garvey? Do you have a respectable job but a life that lacks decency or moral clarity? Do you explain it away by moving through the past and attempting to forget about it? Are you Laurie Garvey, the beautiful wife, mother, and psychiatrist, caught in a dysfunctional family. She’s pregnant, looking at an ultrasound image as the departure happens, reacting as if the child disappeared from the image we never see. More importantly, she was already conflicted on whether to keep the child amidst a broken marriage. She finds her new family, her new purpose, with the Guilty Remnant. Before we go further…

The Guilty Remnant concept is truly fascinating and seeing it fully realized on screen is mesmerizing. Their biggest moments were so affecting, even in 2014, I forgot I owned a cell phone or had email or social media. I didn’t care what else was happening. I wanted to watch this story, let it engulf me, and in Wayne-like form just hug the world out of me. Whether they’re good or bad for Mapleton, New York or anyone else is up to interpretation, but they’re there and they’re consistently compelling.

The penultimate episode of a season is generally when the writers punch the audience in the stomach with the highest level of tension or drama. If you think about it, it makes total sense. The finale is supposed to answer some questions before bringing something new to the surface to set the stage for the next year and leave the viewers salivating for the next chapter.

Jack Bauer and CTU were often in the direst of shape during every episode 23. Don and Betty ended their marriage in episode 12 of Season 2. Walter White hung out in a cabin in the woods before realizing his ultimate fate in the next to last episode of Breaking Bad. Niles and Daphne had their hotel moment, which resolved in the big decision that ended Season 7’s second half hour in the finale. The Leftovers was no different. Another thing about that penultimate installment of a season is it’s usually spectacular in the best programs. That was certainly true of “The Garveys at Their Best” (S1E9).

The Guilty Remnant chain smoke to hasten their own demise, they wear all white, both cult-like and also mundane, and they don’t speak, thinking of themselves as living reminders of the event that changed their world. Their purpose, as local leader Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) makes clear just before she takes her own life, is as the daily wake-up call that what happened, happened. Attempting to move on and forget about it can’t be allowed, is unacceptable, and naive.

This is a world defined by the present, because the religious answers are potentially too difficult to comprehend. If you were left behind, it shows that God, or something, existed. It also shows that whatever that something is, it didn’t choose you. Post-Rapture, God has abandoned those still on Earth, unless those that departed left for a different reason, were chosen for a different purpose, neither better nor worse than those not selected.

Those that watch The Leftovers with the sole purpose of finding out why the Rapture-like event took place have missed the point of the series and, like Lost, are set to be massively disappointed when the story concludes. That question will always be out there, similar to Robert Kirkman’s never-answered question of what the zombie outbreak stemmed from in The Walking Dead. Regardless of why these characters are in the position they are, they remain in that position. There’s a great scene from the late Jerry Orbach on Law and Order as he tells a suspect it doesn’t matter how the evidence got to the police, here it is. So often in this style of show, I harken back to that irrelevant line because it’s so apropos. It doesn’t matter why it happened. It matters what happens now. It matters what happens tomorrow.

How these individuals live their lives three years after the fact and what kind of people they become dictates the story. Perrotta didn’t select a set of main characters with perfect fairy-tale existences. He chose troubled men and women, in bad situations, doing bad things or on complicated paths. Long before the event, those lives had major issues and concerns.

The cast has been awesome, particularly Amy Brenneman, who is incredibly talented and has been for years but might actually be even better using the subtle facial nuance that accompanies a completely silent role. Justin Theroux has proven he’s got what it takes to handle Kevin Garvey’s darkness and instability. Ann Dowd was incredibly powerful as Patti, both in the Remant and as the victim of an abusive marriage. Christopher Eccleston, who I’ve loved for ages, has turned Matt Jamison into more than a member of the clergy or a religious zealot. Carrie Coon’s work as Nora Durst seemed to get better and better and as she narrated the season’s final minutes, even her cadence seemed hauntingly appropriate.

The music has a very Lost feel to it. There wasn’t a grand variety in the score itself, because the few pieces that ran from the beginning were universally effective. In Lost, Giacchino stumbled on his sound early and was able to reuse it because it was perfect. I have that same feeling with The Leftovers. We hear some radio and CD songs and get James Blake’s “Retrograde” in the trailer and in the pilot, but it’s the score that has that same Lost “I could almost shed a tear to this” effect and it’s never unwelcome. Some might want variety, but I’m in the Lindelof camp as to how he utilizes the work of Max Richter, the main composer for the series.

Where the story goes from here, we’ll all have to wait and see. Lindelof has said the television tale will continue beyond Perrotta’s book, as expected, so soon it becomes a new story for Perrotta’s fans as well as those who discovered The Leftovers when they saw the beautiful extended trailer before Game of Thrones episodes this past spring.

HBO sees the end of Boardwalk Empire in a few months. It has already sent True Blood off and The Newsroom’s final episodes begin in early November. The network needed its next crop of shows, and if True Detective, Silicon Valley, and The Leftovers are any indication, the new generation will supplant the old, or perhaps already has. It was ten episodes I thoroughly enjoyed. I can’t wait to see more in 2015 and find out what’s next now that Nora’s likely move to the Remnant hit a detour in the discovery of the newborn child on the Garvey doorstep.

As we live in a world of ISIS, never-ending struggle in the Middle East, 9/11, Ray Rice and general misery and pornography and excess (sounds like I’m now writing about The Wolf of Wall Street but that’s inaccurate), not to mention hatred, prejudice, malice, and pure evil, we sometimes sense malevolence all around us. Today’s world is also one of increasing connectivity but even more rapidly increasing disconnection between people. We live lives behind screens, even at special events, rather than enjoying those experiences. We talk through type and not words. Many in today’s world don’t truly “know” anyone.

Sometimes we can’t recognize this world, our America in particular, and that leads to the sensation that The Leftovers’ timing is eerily appropriate. Practicing Christians often look for signs of a near to the end and most religions look to the worst of today to anticipate a speedy end to any semblance of the next. Excluding the supernatural or the sci-fi that occasionally jumps into the series, most of what takes place on the show doesn’t feel fake or outside the realm of possibility. How different would we act if we were still here after some group of “them” was gone?

Perrotta, who also penned Little Children and Election, the latter of which became Alexander Payne’s first real cult hit as a director, is known for satire. Some consider The Leftovers to be dark satire, but while I can’t speak to that, I can say the series does not feel satirical or flippant. Just like Election though, it’s tremendous.

The Leftovers isn’t Lost Redux. It wasn’t advertised as such and doesn’t have to live up to that claim. However, its similarities to that program are neither surprising nor upsetting. The flashbacks, the character focus, the world of mystery that extends beyond the first question and into the premonitions, the animals, and the dreams, it all feels inspired through Lost’s storytelling devices. The conglomeration of those factors and the music all bring back the best kind of memories.

The coolest thing about all of this is the incontrovertible feeling I have that we’ve just scratched the surface of this story. I feel like it’s only going to get better. If that’s the case, we’re the benefactors. It isn’t the easiest watch, at times its sense of gloom is difficult to take, but it’s unique and it’s unforgettable. Emotionally, it can change you during each hour. I couldn’t detach from it. I loved it. I want more. The Remnant is right. Make me remember October 14th.  

There were moments of imperfection or minor malaise, but they were few and far between. The Leftovers was tight, it was riveting, it was shot brilliantly, and affected me more than any new program in years. Along with shows like Fargo, Masters of Sex, Orange is the New Black, The Americans, and True Detective, and potentially above some of those, this is one of the finest new additions to serialized storytelling we’ve seen in the last few years. With True Detective, it’s the best NEW 1-2 punch on a cable or premium network since Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Bring on Part Deux. Like…now.

Funny, I’m not even a fan of reheated food.

Follow me now and forever and feel free to troll me when necessary @GuyNamedJason

Written by Jason Martin