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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Leftovers Season One

The Leftovers ran for three seasons on HBO, between 2014-2017.  The series was created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, based on Mr. Perotta’s novel.  It takes place three years after 2% of the population “departed” — vanished into thin air in circumstances that are impossible to conclusively explain.  (Was it the Rapture?)  The series explores the lives of many of the denizens of a small town, Mapleton, in Upstate New York.  As we get to know these characters, it becomes clear that each and everyone of them has been deeply damaged by the after-effects of the Sudden Departure, whether or not they actually lost any immediate family members.  One of the show’s central questions is whether that damage is beyond any possibility of repair.

Having been burned by the ending of Lost, I was not interested in watching Mr. Lindelof’s next TV series, so I skipped The Leftovers when it originally ran.  (I’ve written a lot about Lost on this site.  In short, I loved the series but was deeply disappointed by the final season.  I actually quite like the final episode itself.  But I was shocked and heartbroken that the final season refused to answer almost any of the mysteries the show had carefully constructed over the previous five seasons.  It felt to me like a complete betrayal of the audience who had invested so deeply in the show’s story.)  Despite the critical acclaim surrounding The Leftovers — I remember reading about it on a lot of best-of-the-year lists during its run — I couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge.  I wasn’t ready to have my heart broken by a Damon Lindelof TV show again, and everything I’d read about the series’ depressing subject matter kept me away.  Over the years, though, various friends whose opinions I respect have been telling me I need to watch the show.  And then last year I watched and loved Watchmen, the HBO series overseen by Mr. Lindelof (based on the spectacular comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons).  So I decided maybe it was finally time to listen to my friends and give The Leftovers a chance.

My friends all told me the same two things about The Leftovers.  They told me that I needed to brace myself that (like Lost) many of the core mysteries at the show’s center would not be answered.  And they told me that while the first season was incredibly depressing, I needed to stick with the show for all three seasons, because it’s be worth it.

Having now watched the first season (and I’m already deep into the second), I am already very glad that I have finally taken the plunge to watch this show.

The series is depressing.  Yes indeed.  Boy howdy is the series tough to watch at times.  I’ve read some criticism online that the series is misery porn.  There is no question that I found each episode to be painful to watch because of how incredibly, viscerally heart-wrenching the stories being told were.  I did ask myself, on more than one occasion, why I was putting myself through this.  My friends were correct that this is an obstacle to getting into this show.

On the other hand, it’s also a mark of how powerful and remarkably skillful the series’ story-telling is.  Most TV shows never achieve the type of emotional reaction that The Leftovers generated in me in pretty much every single episode.  In only ten episodes, the series allowed me, the viewer, to grow profoundly emotionally attached to almost every single member of the show’s sprawling cast.

The show was remarkably compelling right from the first episode.  But it was in the magnificent third episode in which the series really sunk its hooks into my heart, and I knew that — as hard as it might be at times to watch — I’d be sticking with this series to the end.  That episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” spotlighted Matt Jameson (Christopher Eccleston), the town’s reverend who has made a crusade out of exposing the sins and misdeeds of all the people who departed, as a way of proving that the event was not the Rapture.  That episode depicted a day in Matt’s life that spiraled increasingly out of control in a series of increasingly horrible — and absolutely bonkers — events that had me on the literal edge of my seat.  Matt’s story was about as tough and painful as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.  And the plot twists piled atop plot twists were so audaciously unpredictable that I could not look away.  I was deeply hooked.  (That episode also made me a fan of Mr. Eccleston’s for life, even though I’ve never seen a single episode of Doctor Who.)

(As I move forward in this review, please beware SPOILERS.  I’m going to avoid ruining any of the show’s best surprises, but I will be discussing many of the characters and the way their stories unfolded in this first season.  So complete newbies should please beware.)

The Leftovers had a huge cast of characters, but one of the keys to the success of the show’s story-telling was how each episode seemed to drill down into the specific point of view of a small handful of characters.  Some episodes focused on just one.  (To me, this felt like a wonderful extension of Lost’s signature storytelling device of having each episode explore one specific character’s back-story.)  Those were the highlights of the season for me.  I just mentioned the third episode’s spotlight on Matt; I was also blown away by episode six’s spotlight on Nora.  I’d already been fascinated by the character of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), the woman known in town for the unimaginable tragedy of losing her entire family (her husband and her two young children) in the Sudden Departure.  But that episode, “Guest”, was a magnificent and wrenching deep dive into Nora’s state of mind, while also being another great example of the series’ penchant for “is this really happening?” audacious plot twists.  (When Nora walks into the ballroom and we see that someone really IS impersonating her, up on the dais, my reaction was just as disbelieving as the stunned hotel security manager!)

Those two episodes made me love Matt and Nora… but as I wrote above, by the end of the ten episodes I deeply loved all of the show’s characters!  It’s a testament to the strength of the writing, and to the remarkable ensemble of actors.  I’ve enjoyed Justin Theroux’s work before (he was a riot, for example, in David Wain’s film Wanderlust), but I never had any idea he was capable of the extraordinary emotional depths he was able to reach on this show as Kevin Garvey.  Kevin is the chief of police and the man tasked with holding the town together.  Kevin is, in many ways, the “everyman” character around whom many of the show’s stories and other characters pivots.  But we slowly discover that Kevin’s life is even more out of control than anyone else around him.  In fact, he might be completely psychotic.  I was blown away by Mr. Theroux’s incredible acting over the course of this season, bringing to life this man whose mind might be shredding before our very eyes.

Amy Brenneman (Judging Amy, Heat) was incredible as Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie, who had joined the cult called The Guilty Remnant, whose purpose in life seems to be to prevent anyone else in the world from moving on from the events of the Departure.  Ms. Brenneman is almost completely silent throughout the season (because those in the G.R. never speak), and yet her performance was one of the most powerful and compelling on the show.  Ann Dowd was a magnificently loathsome villain as Patti, the tough-as-nails head of the Mapletown chapter of the Guilty Remnant.  Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings) was terrific as a new recruit drawn into the G.R. by Laurie.  Watching her hatred of the cult transform, over the course of the season, into a deep investment in its cause was chilling.

Margaret Qualley was terrific as Jill, Kevin and Laurie’s deeply haunted teenage daughter.  I enjoyed seeing Emily Meade, years before her incredible work on David Simon’s The Deuce, as Jill’s friend Aimee.  (One of my few disappointments with the end of this first season was that we never got to see what happened to Aimee after she leaves the Garvey home after her fight with Jill!)  Chris Zylka was also solid as Tom, Laurie and Kevin’s other son who had gotten mixed up with Holy Wayne, the head of one of the many new religions/cults that had sprung up in the years after the Departure.  (However, Tom’s story got a bit of a short shrift this season.  Because Tom was separated from all the other Mapleton characters for most of the season, I didn’t feel his stories were quite as compelling as everyone else’s.)  We didn’t get to see much of Holy Wayne himself, but Paterson Joseph was memorably creepy and bizarre in the role.

The great Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff, The Hunt for Red October, The Silence of the Lambs) was terrific in a small but pivotal role as Kevin’s father, Kevin Sr., the town’s former chief of police who seems to have gone crazy in the wake of the Departure.  It was also a fun surprise to see The West Wing’s Janel Moloney as Mary, Matt’s paraplegic wife.  (I was surprised they’d cast an actress as high-profile as Ms. Moloney for a role that mostly called for her to sit unmoving in a wheelchair and stare off into space.  We did get to see a little more of Mary in the season’s flashback penultimate episode.  I wonder of there will be more to Mary’s character to come in future seasons?)

I mentioned above that I’d been warned that the show would not answer many of its major mysteries.  I was worried about how I’d feel about that.  For the most part, I was satisfied with the amount of resolution this first season gave.  Baked into the show’s premise is a major mystery: what happened to all the people who’d vanished on the day of the Sudden Departure?  It was pretty clear to me, as a relatively savvy TV viewer, that this was not a question the show ever intended to answer.  I think that would have been obvious to me, even without any prior warnings.  And I’m OK with that.

But as the show unfolded, it presented a number of other mysteries to us, big and small.  What do the Guilty Remnant want, and what is the reason behind all of the weird things they do (dressing in white, chain-smoking, never speaking)?  Is Kevin Sr. crazy or is he really hearing voices that are feeding him important information?  Is Kevin Jr. going crazy himself?  (Where does he go when he sleepwalks?  What’s the deal with the deer and the dogs?)  Does Holy Wayne really have the Sybok-like mystical ability to take away others’ pain through a hug?  (Why was the government after him?  Does his girlfriend Christine, and/or the child she’s pregnant with, really have a special destiny?  How did he get shot?)

What’s interesting about the world of The Leftovers is that while on the surface the show looks and feels like it takes place in the “real” world, this is a show in which an extraordinary event has happened: the disappearance of 2% of the world’s population.  So, in watching the show and accepting the reality of this situation, one also has to be open to the possibility that other remarkable and otherwise unexplainable events could happen.  So that means this is a world in which Kevin Sr. really might be a conduit for otherworldly voices trying to communicate important truths.  It’s a world in which Holy Wayne really might have supernatural powers.  As much as I, as a viewer, yearned for a definitive explanation as to why Kevin Sr. was so obsessed with that particular issue of National Geographic (and what happened or was happening or might happen in Cairo), I was comfortable with the show’s decision not to definitively answer questions like that.  Why?  Because it feels to me like an intentional choice, as a means of putting us, the viewers, in the shoes of the show’s characters who are living in this world.  In our “real”worlds, it’s easier to dismiss someone hearing voices as being crazy.  But in the world of The Leftovers, 1) one has to at least entertain the possibility that it might be real, and even more importantly 2) there’s no way to be sure one way or another.  That is deeply unsettling for so many of the series’ characters — just as it is for me as a viewer!  I actually think this is an effective storytelling choice.

I enjoyed seeing the way the series’ world-building depicted how so many new cults/religions (depending on one’s point of view) emerged in the years following the Sudden Departure.  We focused most on the Guilty Remnant and on Holy Wayne, but I was also intrigued by the barefoot people who drew targets on their foreheads.  (What was their deal??)  It was also interesting to see the effects of the Departure on the world’s pre-existing religious faiths.  Reverend Matt, as an example, seemed to be having a particularly tough go of it.  (Speaking of Reverend Matt, it’s hard to watch episode 3 and not believe that some sort of Divine Intervention was guiding Matt’s quest to get the money needed to save his church.  Continuing with the point I was making in the above paragraph: in the world of The Leftovers, one could potentially find MORE reason to believe that a religious faith in God is real, rather than less!)

There was a lot of ambiguity in the show’s story-telling choices, but for the most part I was pleased with the amount of resolution we were/weren’t given.  Watching the show, for a while I wondered whether the dog-shooting dude Dean really existed.  (When his truck mysteriously was found parked in Kevin’s driveway, I at first assumed Dean was just a figment of Kevin’s imagination.)  But when he appeared at the town meeting, I think that conclusively showed us that he existed.  Similarly, for most of “Guest,” one had to wonder whether the imposter impersonating Nora was all in her head — but then we do actually see her, to confirm Noar wasn’t simply imagining everything.  So the show did give us those answers.

I felt very satisfied by the wrap-up given at the end of the first season.  I loved the choice of flashing back, in episode nine (“The Garveys at their Best”) to see everyone’s lives before the Departure.  (And to see how messed up everyone was even more that extraordinary event!)  And the finale was a thrilling, compelling wrap-up that brought many of the show’s storylines full circle.  I was left satisfied, and also eager for more, which is just the way a great season of TV storytelling should end.

Other thoughts:

* I loved the show’s musical choices.  There were some terrific songs used at key moments, and I absolutely adored the show’s main theme which would hauntingly play during each episode’s most pivotal emotional beat.

* It took me a while to realize that the main family of the show, the Garveys, didn’t actually lose an immediate family member to the departure.  Despite that, they were as damaged and fractured as anyone else on the show.  I thought that was very powerful.

* Or DID the Garveys lose a family member?  This show was filled with staggeringly surprising plot-twists and some amazing cliffhangers.  (The end of episode eight, with you-know-who bleeding out in Kevin’s arms, while meanwhile Jill showed up ready to join the Guilty Remnant as a way to finally make her mother deal with her, was out of this world.)  But I was astounded by the enigmatic shot in episode nine that suggested that, perhaps, Laurie’s unborn fetus also vanished during the Departure.  Wowsers — THIS SHOW!!

* One of my favorite moments in the show’s early going, that impressed me with how well developed the world and characters in the show were, was when Jill and her friends see Nora (who we knew lost her entire family in the Departure, and who we’d just learned was carrying a gun in her purse) approached Matt (who was spreading leaflets about how terrible and sinful everyone who’d vanished in the Departure was), and Jill and her friends suspected Nora would shoot him!  That really made me laugh.  (This was before we learned Nora and Matt were siblings.)  I did like that this dour show could also — occasionally — make me laugh!

* In terms of ambiguity that I can live with, I’m OK never knowing what wish Kevin made to Holy Wayne in the finale.  (My assumption is that it was to get his family back…)

* It made me so happy to see, in the season finale, that the wild dog HAD actually been domesticated in the end!!  What a beautiful pay-off to that bizarre running sub-plot.

* Speaking of running subplots, perhaps the greatest mystery of the show is this: why Perfect Strangers on TV every time someone from The Leftovers is watching TV?  As someone who grew up with Cousins Larry and Balki, that brought me deep joy.

There’s so much more that I could say about The Leftovers season one. This was a rich, complex season of television.  It was difficult, and it was viscerally unpleasant and emotionally wrenching.  But it was also one of the most riveting TV shows I’ve seen in a good long while.  The series is a profound meditation on grief and belief.  It’s a phenomenal character study and a terrific example of fantasy world-building.  I’m deeply impressed, and I can’t wait to move on to season two.

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