Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers, adapted from Tom Perotta’s novel, feels only timelier now.
The series is set in a world that is dealing with the aftermath of an unexplained event – called The Departure that saw 2% of the world’s population vanish with no warning. its three-season run remains one of television’s all-time greatest accomplishments, getting obsessively more bingeable and even more weird as it progresses. It’s a human drama in the face of the apocalypse, making bigger stories feel as small and as personal as they come, and a powerful study on the process of grief and healing. To not have seen The Leftovers is to rob yourself of one of the most richly rewarding television experiences of the 2010s – and then some.
There is no pandemic, there is no virus, there is no alien invasion. Why is not the important question. If you go into The Leftovers expecting answers you’re only going to be disappointed, but that is not a bad thing at all – far from it. Instead; it asks: “Who?”. It explores who its characters are, how they’re shaped by the world events around them and how they come to move on. By not throwing endless lore dumps at you and endless exposition it throws you naturally into the world like it might as well have been real – the sheer suddenness of the vanishing of the population leaves a harrowing mark – but what follows in the wake of what happens is way more realistic than anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for example, post Thanos’ blip. It slows down to deal with the actual consequences of the matter rather than brushing them aside, exploring how people reacted who lost their entire families. Except with a difference: there is no Avengers: Endgame for these people, they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. Perotta’s guiding hand shepherds the first season of The Leftovers giving the film a ready-made source material to draw from: we meet the mysterious Guilty Remnant, a cult of white-robed people who refuse to speak and refuse to say anything even when spoken to.
We explore, through Christopher Eccleston’s Matt, where real-world religious figures such as Priests go when the unexplainable happens, as he argues that the Departure was not the Rapture, and that the people who vanished had flaws too – it was chosen at random, not by design. But the attention never moves away from the Garvey family, anchoring us firmly in place through the screwed-up lives of its core characters – each dealing with their own personal losses in their own way. Whilst episodes dovetail to focus around other characters like Matt, giving us one of the first series’ best episodes in episode three, Two Boats and Helicopter, as he takes up gambling and goes on an odyssey of self-destruction and self-discovery in the wake of a loss of church attendance, the overarching narrative never leaves the Garveys, a family that was ripped apart in the wake of the event that happened on October 14, 2011. Three years later, in Mapleton, New York – order is a thing that’s hard to keep, as police chief Kevin (Justin Theroux) knows. His wife, Laurie, ( Amy Brenneman) left him to join the Guilty Remnant, whilst his son – Tom,(Chris Zylka) joined another cult led by Holy Wayne (Patterson Joseph), a messianic figure, and his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), is a delinquent. Regardless of who these characters are and where they come from The Leftovers ensures that you will have empathy with all of them, not demonising figures like the GR, and with the depth afforded to all, it means that some of the best of the series’ episodes are wholly character-driven, rendering the series completely different from the plot-heavy television that predominates modern streaming services. It’s hard to imagine binge-watching this show: to get the full experience, watch an episode a week – take your time. You’ll need it. It isn’t an easy watch and it doesn’t intend to be.
It’d be wrong to not mention this show without arguably one of the best performances of the 21st century – Carrie Coon as Nora Durst, a grieving widow who has lost her entire family. The connection between Coon and Theroux is natural and it leads to one of the best payoffs in television history – building on the clearly defined stoic heroicness of Nora’s character. Without spoiling it too much for those yet to experience the journey like the rest of us, there’s a scene set to I’ve Got Dreams to Remember by Otis Redding that will almost certainly move you. Its final season is basically one perfect episode after another: if you didn’t think the show could top the beloved mind-bending odyssey that is Series Two’s International Assassin, a character-defining moment for Kevin, think again – and the show sends you down the end of a rabbit hole that you cannot quite escape from. Whilst there is a lot of Lindeloff’s previous series LOST in here with echoes of similarity between Kevin Garvey and Jack Shephard and their relationship with their fathers, and the love story at the core of the show – The Leftovers finds its own identity that is entirely removed from any other show on television. To its credit in an age of near-constant bloat, the show still feels so unique – there’s not another series like it.
Max Richter’s haunting score helps give all three seasons a unique feel. The theme is replaced by a country music-Esque theme song in the second season is a bit jolting but Let the Mystery Be has never been a more perfect theme song for a show like this. It dares the audience to stop wondering about the why – as the series progresses it gets weirder and weirder, moving to Australia in the third season, as you do – but it never loses faith in the core argument that this is a character-first, mystery-second show. Lindelof annoyed a lot of people with the ending of LOST but the double header of The Leftovers and Watchmen reminds people that he’s very good at what he does, with the show being one of the rare things that elevates itself above the source material – leaving it far behind in the second season, as it propels towards an endpoint that ensures audiences that you will be talking about the series as a collective whole, rather than simply discussing – as is all-too a common trend as of late, the merits of the series based on its last episode. It’s about the journey, not the destination.