The Leftovers has held an interesting space in the critical landscape. Metacritic assigned a Metascore of 65 to Season One (“generally favorable reviews”), and I am a big fan of the site, a “review aggregator” that serves a similar purpose as Rotten Tomatoes (although Metacritic expands beyond movies and TV). A problem with Metascore when it comes to television, though, is that the score is calculated based on the initial reviews for a series. Alan Sepinwall has been perhaps the show’s biggest champion, but his review on which Metacritic did its calculations came after he had only seen four episodes. The Leftovers seemed to get more praise as the season went on, and my guess is if Metacritic had used the season-ending reviews, the score might have been higher than 65. When I wrote about Season One a few weeks in, I called it “intriguing”. By the end of the season, I was giving The Leftovers an “A” grade. As I noted, though, a series that so effectively examined guilt and depression would be too much for some (most?) viewers, and you couldn’t just sit back and enjoy gangsters getting whacked to take your mind off of Tony Soprano’s anxiety. And I’m not clear about how HBO figures ratings, or how much they care about ratings, but The Leftovers was not a ratings hit in its first season.
The Metascore for Season Two jumped to 80. Not only were those who already liked it still on board, but some who didn’t much like it felt the new season was an improvement. The headlines accompanying various pieces by Matt Zoller Seitz demonstrate this. His first review, of Season One, was titled “The Leftovers Is All Bleakness All the Time”, while today’s piece is titled “The Leftovers Is One of the Great Dramas in American TV – and It Deserves a Third Season”. Once again, the initial Metascore may have been low, because critics were generally effusive in how well the end of the season played out.
How did the second season differ from the first? The series is based on a novel, and that’s a key right there: a novel, not a series of novels. Season One covered the novel, so Season Two had to break new ground. Several of the regulars moved across the country, so there was a new location for the events of the season, and many former regulars were left behind. This new location was a town in Texas, Jarden, that had renamed itself Miracle, because no one in the town had departed. I seem to remember people sensing that Season Two wasn’t quite as wrenching. Here’s a brief Twitter exchange I had with Willa Paskin:
Willa: The new season of The Leftovers is real good, will not make you want to claw your eyes out in depression.
Me: But I liked being depressed!
Willa: It’s still sad, but, like, have a tub of ice cream and cry it out sad, not self-harm sad.
This might have been true at the beginning of the season, but I don’t know, it was pretty fucking depressing by the end. Well, the final shot might have had a tiny bit of uplift in it, but the several episodes prior to that moment were tough to watch. They were also great.
In any event, by the end, critics were placing it in their Top Ten lists, and some were suggesting it was reaching the heights of the acknowledged greats of the past. Alan Sepinwall was again gushing: “As great and special as the best years of the classic HBO dramas of the early ‘00s”. I’m not there yet, and if I was going to pick a great show that isn’t being watched by enough people, I’d go with The Americans over The Leftovers. But it’s close.
What makes it so good? The way it looks so closely at how events effect the various characters ... this is part of why it is an uncomfortable series, pain and guilt and depression aren’t comfortable. It has just enough magical elements to keep us on our toes. And there are so many actors doing such great jobs, it’s the old “I can’t list them all, so I won’t list any”. OK, I’ll list a few. Justin Theroux has his Emmy scene now:
Amy Brenneman, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd ... all great. Perhaps the most startling performance came from Liv Tyler, aka Arwen the Elf maiden. Her transformation into one of the scariest characters on TV was amazing, and unexpected.
Grade for Season Finale: A+. Grade for Season Two: A.