I need to say something about the first season of The Leftovers, but I can’t come close to what Jacob Clifton wrote for MorningAfter: "Praying for Time When Nothing Else Matters: The Leftovers, Season One." I wouldn’t do justice to the piece if I quoted a few choice passages … it’s a longish read, but worth it, and while Clifton doesn’t say exactly what I would say (I can’t just point to it and announce, “What he said”), the writing is so strong and he is so locked into his take on the series that he makes me want to watch Season One all over again.
Some of the things that draw me to The Leftovers are the same things that other people complain about. A mysterious event occurs: 2% of the world’s population disappears in an instant. It’s reminiscent of the “Rapture”, except, despite the evocative graphics under the opening credits that show people floating into the heavens, no one actually makes a visible leap. One second everyone is there; the next second, 2% of them are not there. It is a fascinating setup, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s going to be awhile before this event is explained. (Eventually you realize it will never be explained.) That in itself gave folks a reason to abandon the show … why watch something with a mystery at its core if they weren’t going to explain what happened? People are still pissed at Lost, and it’s no surprise that one of the creators of The Leftovers is Damon Lindelof, who was the showrunner for Lost.
Some people have asked me, does it get better? These are people who gave up. I can’t tell them it does, because the reasons for their displeasure are central to the series … they aren’t going away. So The Leftovers is one of the most relentlessly depressing shows ever made. Partly this is because, as we watch people three years after the “event”, they don’t seem to have come to grips with anything (and who could blame them?). But it’s mainly because, as one critic whose name escapes me pointed out, The Leftovers is about depression, and the attempt to escape it. One by one we get to know the characters, and with each of them, we see that they are dealing with depression, each in their own way. It’s overwhelming to watch this week after week … I can’t imagine anyone binge watching it, even a week isn’t enough time to recover from an episode.
It’s a show about depression, and it’s a show about grief. And again, that’s not something that will encourage people to watch. (“Oh boy, everyone is miserable because they’ve lost someone, I can’t wait for the next episode!”) I think it is very honest about grief, but I accept that many/most people would rather just watch another NCIS rerun.
And I haven’t said anything about the Guilty Remnant, a cult that does what they can to force people to remember what happened three years ago, whether those people want to remember or not.
If I start listing cast members who do great jobs, my list will either be too long, or I’ll forget someone. So I’ll just mention a few. Heartthrob Justin Theroux is the main character, and he’s a tormented individual. It’s not an easy part, and I suppose people who don’t like the show might take out their feelings on Theroux. But I think he’s very good. Carrie Coon seems like a peripheral character at first, but she grows in importance, and the sixth episode is largely about her. She has an everywoman face … well, it’s a very pretty face, so she’s a very pretty everywoman, but you feel like you might see her on the street. And as we spend more time with her, and we like her, she seems “real”, so when Coon starts to deliver on the depth of her character, it’s quite impressive. Finally, Amy Brenneman is a revelation, which is an odd thing to say for someone who is 50 years old … you’d think we would have discovered her a long time ago. And, of course, we have … she has five Emmy nominations, two when I first noticed her 20 years ago in the first seasons of NYPD Blue. But I haven’t kept up with her career, and I guess I just forgot about her, thinking of her as one of those good-looking actors that Hollywood cranks out like candy. Her character is a member of the Guilty Remnant, who don’t talk … they write everything down on paper. This means that, outside of a flashback episode that shows people the day before the “event”, Brenneman has to show us what she is thinking and feeling solely through the looks on her face. It’s not exactly a ravaged face … if anything, she’s better looking than ever … but there’s an untouched quality, she never appears to be wearing makeup, and that look says volumes about how much she has struggled. At those times when everything inside her wants to speak, to tell what is burning inside of her, Brenneman has to rely solely on facial expressions. And we always know what she is thinking. It’s a masterful performance.
The last scene of the season may represent hope, or at least, the possibility of hope. Which means Season Two has real potential to be more than a rehash of the first season. But hope must be treated with the same detailed honesty as grief and depression have been. From what we’ve seen so far, that is not something we should worry about. Grade for Season One: A.