Like the novel it’s based on, “The Leftovers” is a powerful, enrapturing consideration of how people react to loss and the unknowable.
Damon Lindelof (probably most famous for showrunning “Lost”) and the novel’s author himself, Tom Perrotta, together man the series, which is brought to life with the typical HBO prestige drama trappings. There’s a brilliant cast, with Christopher Eccleston (exquisite in his standalone episode, perhaps the strongest of the season) and Carrie Coon standing out particularly, but nearly all their peers in the cast are truly excellent as well. There’s a moving, memorable score, from Max Richter, no less. There’s immensely skilled directors working on the show, there’s cinematic composition and presentation, there’s immense production value, and so on.
What’s perhaps most captivating about the show is how it diverges from that “prestige TV” approach in being so clearly unconcerned with traditional plot arcs, or mysteries, or worldbuilding, or anything else to serve as an easy, gripping hook for viewers. The central conceit is that, three years before the main time period of the show, 2% of the world’s population vanished in a completely unexplained event. As with the novel, the show doesn’t take any kind of science-fiction or mystery approach and explore the causes or purposes of such an event, instead it comes down to the levels of the characters and how they react in the wake of such a devastating, maddeningly unknowable deliverance of loss.
It’s a show about grappling with the unknown, with the all-so common absences in life, and that extends to the construction of the show itself. Lindelof stressed that approaching the show like a puzzlebox, as many did with his own “Lost”, doesn’t really jive with the mindset it was created in, missing the forest for the trees as it were. It’s never misdirection or a cheap fakeout, it’s just that the show is operating on the same level as its characters.
As hollow as some of the characters feel, they’re never written in a way that feels “hollow” from the viewer’s perspective – they’re complex, three-dimension, well-rounded people that invite empathy before judgement. Their struggles feel depressingly relatable and real. The mass disappearance of 2% of the population a metaphor viewers can project their own losses and grapplings with the unknowable onto. The absences in the character’s lives may be more dramatic than ours, but the very human, earnest way the show explores how they deal with such absences invites empathy from us, as loss and struggling with the unknown is a universal experience.
For all the depressing reality of the show, it does have the occasional strong moment of comedy (not only wryness, usually delivered by Carrie Coon’s character, but also more general goofiness from the teenage cast) and dramatic action (particularly director Peter Berg’s staging of a parade-turned-riot in the premiere, and Mimi Leder’s depiction of a fiery rescue attempt in the finale). The show exhausts virtually all of the novel’s content, but adds some fascinating touches as well, including some creative worldbuilding touches that build to a more powerful climax, and a subplot questioning the sanity of the lead character (a difficult performance brought to life well by Justin Theroux). Perrotta, the novel’s author, being so deeply involved with the show was no doubt an important part of how naturally the show functions as an extension, refinement, and ultimately an improvement of the novel’s exploration of its story, characters, and themes.
The way the show dispensed with the usual, repetitive hallmarks of not just prestige television, but television in general, deeply appealed to me, as did its very specific, unrelenting worldview. Not only is it a brilliant, moving rumination on universal struggles with loss and the unknown, but also a powerful statement on how so much of what’s become normal and expected in television is unnecessary, and even a hindrance. I give it four and a half conference passes, and a dog off the leash.