The Leftovers: Season One

left12017: 14: The Leftovers- Season One (2014) Blu-ray

The Leftovers is the critical darling/HBO show that didn’t quite ‘hit’ with Joe Public.  It returns next month for a third and final season (and kudos to HBO there for sticking with it and giving fans some sense of ‘closure’- the latter rather ironic considering the subject for the show). For myself, this was always a show that I was immensely curious about, and I bought the first season on Blu-ray not long after it was released, early last year, but never got around to watching it. The fact that the (apparently) superior second season was never released on Blu-ray over here due to lack of interest/declining format sales rather put the pressure off ever watching that first season, but a few weeks ago an Australian copy showed up cheap and I finally pulled the trigger on it. So with two seasons at hand and the third season imminent, it seemed the time for The Leftovers had finally come.

The Leftovers has an intriguing premise, as if straight from a Stephen King novel that somehow he never wrote, or is out there somewhere never read. One day, completely without warning or any apparent cause, 2% of the world’s population -140 million people- simply disappeared, instantly. Apparently in the blink of an eye, they were gone. They might have been babies, children, fathers, mothers-  sleeping, playing, driving, running, watching television, making love… whatever, they simply disappeared, all of them in a single instant, worldwide, leaving horrified freinds and family behind. It was called ‘The Departure’, and The Leftovers is set some three years later, in what the world has become.

Scientists and theologians have attempted to grasp and explain what happened, without success. Conspiracy theorists blame everything from the government to aliens. Religious people see it as either reward or punishment from God. Scientists see it as some natural freak occurrence that might one day be explained if only they get enough data and finance for research. Are the departed dead? Are they alive? Are they in Heaven or Hell or just waiting, somewhere, in some other place? How does one come to terms with a loved one simply ‘gone’? Might they return? How does one move on and grieve if they might one day actually come back? And might it happen again?

left2And here’s the wonderful thing about The Leftovers, at least as far as season one is concerned- it never attempts to explain anything. The Departure happened. There is no explanation. It might have been the wrath of God. It might have been Aliens. It might have been some terrible government weapon program gone wrong. It might be something else entirely. The Leftovers isn’t really interested in any of that, and while it offers us in flashbacks glimpses of the event and what happened, and this informs how the characters function and behave, the actual mechanism of the event is almost incidental. Its more interested in those left behind, and that question I raised in my previous paragraph- how does one move on from an event such as The Departure?

The first season of The Leftovers is a wonderful piece of work. Its beautifully acted, carefully scripted and skillfully directed, with production values typically high for an HBO project. The music is heartbreakingly sublime. Somehow, it feels more like ‘art’ than ‘product’. It probably says more about the times that we live in and how many modern people ‘feel’ about our current world than 90% of the film and television produced today. And yet it’s also infuriating and frustrating and falters just so short of greatness.

For one thing, its frustrating that for a show  that is ostensibly so leftfield and brave and challenging, that the majority of its cast are white, and beautiful, and the characters generally intelligent and financially capable. They may appear to be ‘ordinary’ to some people but it’s somewhat ‘above-ordinary’ from my point of view. I suppose the show is saying that if even decent, fairly balanced and well-off career people can go off the rails following an event like The Departure then anyone can. But it is rather sad that such a wide-reaching and ambitious work is hamstrung by such insular thinking in its cast and setting. I would have preferred to have seen a more varied cast, racially, and perhaps the point of view from the disenfranchised of society- the criminals and the misfits, the poor and dirty. More of the bad side of the tracks, I guess, showing the ability of some to profit from the Departure. We see some of that, but not really enough in my view. There always seems to be a ‘bigger picture’ that is withheld from us, a worldview perhaps… maybe later?

left6Season one of the show is set predominantly in a leafy, beautiful suburban town called Mapleton, near New York.  The central protagonist is the town’s chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) who is separated from his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) who has joined a post-Departure cult titled the Guilty Remnant.  His daughter Jill is a beautiful high-school girl who is mixing with the ‘wrong crowd’ in her attempt to deal with her troubled home life. His step-son Tommy is out of town somewhere and out of touch. Garvey isn’t sleeping well, and is losing his grip on reality as much as he is his family. With his father in an Asylum hearing ‘voices’, Garvey fears he is suffering from the beginnings of his father’s malady. Whatever anyone else says of The Leftovers, one thing is certain- Garvey is a fascinating character and Theroux simply brilliant. Garvey trying to hold everything together while everything falls apart around him and his sanity falters is fantastic television.

Elsewhere in the town, Nora (Carrie Coon) struggles with the pain of losing all of her family in the Departure- her husband and two young children. Was she in some way to blame for being so ‘unlucky’? Her brother Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston, who almost steals the whole show from Theroux) is the town pastor but his congregations have dwindled in this apparently now Godless world, and his doubts that the Departure was a Biblical Rapture results in him posting ‘proof’ of some of the Departed being sinners- uncomfortable truths and revelations for families left behind, including his sister when he reveals to Nora that her beloved husband was actually cheating on her.

left7And what indeed of the Guilty Remnant, that strange, ever-silent, chain-smoking group of people dressed in white whose central purpose is to ensure people do not forget those gone, that those who are left do not move on with their lives, and that any attempt to rationalise or explain The Departure is useless. And what on earth sent Garvey’s wife Laurie spinning off into madland to join them?

The first season of The Leftovers is pretty brilliant, although I do wish it had been a bit more diverse with its cast and setting. Maybe the second season addresses these concerns. As I have already stated, the show isn’t perfect; its close, but it doesn’t always hit the highs it is clearly aiming for -hell, at least its ambitious enough to try. I do think that in twenty, thirty years it will be revaluated by historians as perhaps being some indication of where our society is right now, in a world that no longer makes sense. A world where politicians lie and we can doubt the existence of God or see every night on the news God being used to justify all sorts of modern-day terrors. In some ways, with things like Trump and Brexit going on, watching The Leftovers now almost feels like its time has come, that perhaps it was made and released a few years too early, and that the world has horribly caught up with it.

More than that though, it simply feels very raw and personal. Its a very dark, even depressing show, at times unrelentingly so- it’s about grief and loss, subjects not all too familiar in modern dramatic works, certainly not on the big screen at any rate and rare enough on mainstream television. It can no doubt leave viewers feeling uncomfortable with mysteries left unexplained. There are no big effects, no wizards or monsters or superheroes, just (fairly) ordinary people in a suddenly strange world, a world without explanations or clear right and wrong, a world that no longer makes any sense. Thats likely the biggest positive- there are lots of questions but not any answers, or at least, no answers that we feel earned or that we can believe. Its captivating and thrilling television. There are some genuinely heartbreaking moments of such brilliant acting… its a phenomenal show and the fact that the second season is purported to be even better is quite a prospect.

And the music… goodness me, the music…