Television has become the major arena for great storytelling, with writers and directors using the advantages of the medium to expire narrative and character in ways cinema has never been able to. The downside of this though is that, with so much content, many great series never achieve the kind of recognition they deserve. This week, the second season of one such series arrives on Blu-ray, and to coincide with its release, I wanted to take some time to acknowledge it - not just because most Australian audiences are probably unfamiliar with it, but because I think it’s one of the finest shows currently running. If you haven’t seen or heard of ‘The Leftovers’, you’re missing something quite totally unique and utterly spellbinding.
Based on the book by Tom Perrotta and developed for television by Perrotta and ‘Lost’ creator Damon Lindelof, ‘The Leftovers’ deals with the aftermath of a bizarre catastrophe, where two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappear without a trace. The series itself is set three years after the Departure, and focuses on the splintered Garvey family in the New York town of Mapleton, using them as a microcosm to explore the wider social, political and spiritual effects of the disaster. Kevin (Justin Theroux), the Chief of Police, has only his teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Quilley) as support after his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) leaves to join the cult the Guilty Remnant and his son Tommy (Chris Zylka) disappears to follow a mysterious holy man. As Kevin tries to hold his family and his town together, he finds himself drawn to Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a woman who lost her entirely family in the Departure and who, like Kevin, is trying to find a way to put her life back on track and somehow define it.
‘The Leftovers’, developed by HBO and Warner Bros Television, was awaited with quiet anticipation, not just because of the reputation of Perrotta and the source novel, but because it was Lindelof’s return to television after the enormous success of ‘Lost’. The central premise certainly seemed to match the kind of work we’d seen from him, not just from ‘Lost’ but from his film work such as ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Tomorrowland’ - the idea of a central mystery from which everything else is spun. However, his work since ‘Lost’ had failed to capture that originality and bravery of storytelling, the films often dissolving into a confusing or esoteric mess. From the very first episode of ‘The Leftovers’ though, it becomes very clear that this is far from the case. After creating a series that rewrote the rules of television, Lindelof (along with Perrotta and their writing and directing teams) set about writing a whole new set.
Many series take on heavy, difficult material, but few carry the weight of ‘The Leftovers’. Its science fiction set-up fades away within minutes of the first episode, instead becoming an astute and frighteningly honest meditation on trauma and grief. Moving at a carefully considered pace, each episode acts as almost a parable or tone poem on its particular character, expanding their own personal narrative to construct the wider universe of the show. The Departure is never (and probably never will be) explained, but what makes ‘The Leftovers’ unique and all the more powerful is that the answer to this question is unimportant. The world has decided to try and move on, but without an answer, it’s not sure if that’s a possibility.
The metaphor of ‘The Leftovers’ is clearly a post-9/11 world, but what gives the series its power is the honesty of its conceit, and the unflinching manner in which it explores the psychology of grief and survivor's guilt. This isn’t an easy series to watch, and many audiences have found its sense of sorrow unrelenting and overwhelming. Yet that depth of feeling and conviction works so beautifully because, unlike a prestige awards-hungry drama built for Oscar season, the difficult material is always built out of character and narrative. Unlike the unending violence in ‘Game of Thrones’, every gruelling moment of ‘The Leftovers’ feels justified and necessary, and even if it becomes so overwhelmingly sad at points that you can hear your heart breaking and have to watch it through tears, you never question the validity of it. These are characters and a world in enormous pain, and while this was never going to be easy material, it approaches it with this with tremendous integrity.
With the Departure so similar to the Biblical prediction of the Rapture, religion and spirituality become important touchstones for the series. Central to this is the Guilty Remnant, whose intention, through silence, chain-smoking and white clothing as a destruction of the self, and public acts of antagonism and intimidation, is to make sure that the Departure is never forgotten. They’re both sickening and hypnotising, especially under the influence of the Mapleton chapter’s powerful leader Patty Levin (Ann Dowd). They are the blockage that prevents the world from moving on, and as a dramatic antagonist the tension they create is exquisite. It’s also a world of miracles and unexplainable occurrences, such as the shift in the second series to the town of Miracle, the only place with no recorded departures. We’re rarely given explanations, but while that was occasionally aggravating in ‘Lost’, Lindelof here uses them as tools to bolster the narrative and our understanding of the characters. Some of it is incredibly bold, but rather than scoffing at it, we’re held transfixed by it.
The writing is razor-sharp and often tremendously brave, executed on-screen with an almost verité immediacy.
It’s also an exceptionally-mounted series in every way. The writing is razor-sharp and often tremendously brave, executed on-screen with an almost verité immediacy. The series takes its influences from classic shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Friday Night Lights’, even using the talents of directors who worked on those shows like Peter Berg and Mimi Leder. Topping it off is the jaw-dropping score from composer Max Richter, easily some of the most devastating music ever composed for either television or cinema. But what really makes ‘The Leftovers’ tip into the extraordinary are its performances. Theroux pulls off magic as Kevin, a dazzling combination of broken, determined and bewildered that veers from any cliché concept of masculinity. Christopher Eccleston is equally as superb as Nora’s reverend brother Matt, an unending force of optimism in the face of an impossible succession of crises. As great as the men are though, the series belongs to the women in the ensemble. Anne Dowd is magnificent as Patti, hypnotic and horrifying in equal measure. Amy Brenneman is a wonder as Laurie, initially stripped of her ability to speak yet able to communicate volumes. Liv Tyler comes out of nowhere as Megan, a new member of the Guilty Remnant who goes from their biggest critic to their most militant soldier. In the second season, Regina King steps in with stunning work as a member of the town of Miracle (I won’t tell you too much about that). And topping it all off is Carrie Coon, who as Nora delivers what I think is the best performance on television. She is the fire and heart of this series, arresting every moment she appears on screen, delivering a performance that often leaves you breathless. Every member of the ensemble of ‘The Leftovers’ is vital and incredible, and reason enough to commit to it.
After the critically acclaimed second season, it was announced that the third season would be the last. However, all reports suggest that this is the series coming to an end on its own terms, and that can only be a good thing. What Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof have created with ‘The Leftovers’ is a quiet miracle, a poetic and furious meditation on our capacity to recover (or not recover) in the aftermath of tragedy, and I suspect that they will deliver something truly extraordinary for their third and final act. Many shows may be more ambitious, but few have this much artistry and integrity. With the first two seasons now available on Blu-ray, this is the perfect opportunity to discover this remarkable piece of television. It is easily one of the finest series currently airing, and I suspect that in years to come will be acknowledged as a true classic of the medium.