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The Leftovers: HBO's Difficult and Emotional Dream

Justin Theroux and Carrie Coons star in Season Two of HBO's  The Leftovers  (Image © HBO). 

Justin Theroux and Carrie Coons star in Season Two of HBO's The Leftovers (Image © HBO). 

To describe a show as difficult is to ensure the person you’re speaking to won’t watch it, which is a shame because shows that are difficult are often the most rewarding. The Wire did not grab viewers immediately, taking time to build, but putting in the effort to allow the show to develop yielded huge rewards. HBO’s drama The Leftovers, now nearing the end of its second season, has much in common with The Wire, both in terms of difficulty and in its seasonal structure.

            Last year, I wrote about The Leftovers, praising its freshman season (and this came before its incredible finale). I also noted the show’s use of dreamlike atmosphere: “The new reality post-the Departure is where The Leftovers’ dreamlike vibe comes from. Events proceed differently because everyone is aware of, and cannot logically deny, a mysterious event with an answer that does not appear to be forthcoming anytime soon. When we dream, we know that events will not make linear sense. We can analyze our dreams, try to decipher what they mean, but we don’t look for an explanation of how we end up from place to place in them. In the waking world, we expect such answers and not getting them is deeply disturbing.”

            Now take that quote and double it for the second season, a season that refuses to cohere with most of the normal expectations of television shows. You like a dreamlike atmosphere? How about a whole episode inside what may be a hallucination or a parallel world? Or how about one hour of the show delivered as if it was a religious parable? Or, in one of the show’s most potent episodes, how about an episode told from the viewpoint of a religious fanatic?

            So, yes, The Leftovers has embraced a unique style of storytelling and, yes, it is often difficult at first to get a handle on. But it’s worth the effort because it is aiming for a goal few dramas do.

            The Leftovers’ first season came with an interesting critical reaction. Critics like Hit Fix’s Alan Sepinwall adored it (he went on to call it his favorite show of the year) while Salon’s Sonia Saraiya found it to be far more hit and miss. The first season’s Metacritic score, a percentage of how positive the show was received (a flawed system, but it gives us enough of an overview), came out to be a 65. Matt Zoller Setiz’s review at Vulture probably does the best job of summing up many critics’ complicated relationship with the show.

            Yet the second season has seen near universal critical praise, garnering a score of 80 on Metacritic and winning over critics who were unsure of the show, such as Maureen Ryan, and even one who detested the show, Andy Greenwald (he of the now departed Grantland).

            There’s a slight inclination to say the second season of The Leftovers is a reboot of sorts, explaining the show’s reevaluation. After all, half the cast is gone and the location has switched from New York to Texas. Did co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (the latter is the author of the novel the drama is based on) decide to try again after a tumultuous first season?

            By watching solely the first episode, one which focuses on The Murphys, a family in Texas whom the audience has never before seen, one might think they decided to keep the basic idea, but go in a different direction. By the time the end of the second season rolls around, it’s clear this isn’t the case. No, The Leftovers is the show it’s always been; it’s just expanding its scope.

            This isn’t to say that Lindelof and Perrota didn’t learn from some mistakes. In the second season, they laid out a narrative arc in the very first episode: the disappearance of Evie Murphy along with her friends. In the first season, the overall story arc did not begin to peek out until close to the end of the season. While it had been building, no viewer could pinpoint it until the season wrapped. This is easy to get away with in a film, but in a television show that airs weekly, it did allow for viewer attrition. While some, like yours truly, were more than satisfied with the character, themes, and atmosphere, many viewers, understandably, like to have more of a plot to hold on to, even if it’s a slim one. That The Leftovers began without a clear narrative through line no doubt turned off many potential viewers, especially ones who were fans of some of HBO’s other dramas, like the intricately plotted Game of Thrones.

            However, The Leftovers is a show so unique that it has likely taken viewers and critics some time to become accustomed to its style of storytelling and to its strange world. While the start of the second season gave viewers a lot of new material, as The Leftovers reaches its second season finale, the events of the first season are coming back into play, especially with the character of Meg Abbott, the “villain” of the show. The most controversial aspect of the first season, the religious cult the Guilty Remnant, remained absent for much of the second season, but it is now returning in force for a massive showdown in the Texas city of Jarden.

            Lindelof and Perrotta played an impressive game involving sleight of hand, making it appear The Leftovers would be exploring only new ground, but it was in fact just allowing both the characters, and the viewers, to get comfortable in order to make the return of the Guilty Remnant, Meg, and other themes from the first season all the more distressing.

            The difficulty of the show has remained consistent. It is not at all interested in answering the question of where 2% of the Earth’s population vanished to- the show even doubled down on that by changing the music that plays over the opening credits to Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” The show still likes to delve into symbolism and dream logic, such as with the eighth episode’s journey through Kevin Garvey’s subconscious or his journey through some netherworld (your choice as to which version you want to believe). Perhaps most difficult to grapple with is the show likes to revolve around emotional storytelling instead of physical storytelling. Events in The Leftovers are not always explained, some seem random; the show is less interested in why events happen but instead in how the characters handle the bizarre sights and sounds of the post-Departure world. For those who want concrete explanations in their show, The Leftovers will be a bitter pill to swallow.

            There’s something refreshingly honest about this approach, though. Reality often doesn’t make sense; events occur that seem random, that are inexplicable, that are so shockingly tragic that all the world can do is wonder what cruel powers pull the strings. Our responses to these tragedies range from grief to raw, vicious anger. Logic will often evade us.

            The Leftovers understands this in a way that few television dramas do. Offhand, only The Sopranos and, to a somewhat lesser, extent Mad Men have embraced this style of storytelling and even then neither have gone to the extremes of The Leftovers because the world in those dramas did not face as startling and incomprehensible a fate. The Leftovers is letting us glimpse the lives and mindsets of those who deal with massive tragedy and must somehow manage to still exist.

            In the show’s first episode, Kevin Garvey lifted his glass and told a woman, “We’re still here.” The Leftovers bravely shows how emotionally hard still being here in a world filled with shocks and tragedy can be.

            Which brings us right back around to the idea The Leftovers is a difficult drama. It is true, no doubt, although that does not have to be a negative. Television should not be filled with difficult shows 24/7, but it is nice to have one that challenges the mind and asks the viewer to look at emotional truths, ones we usually shy away from. Television has been an evolving medium, especially over the past twenty years and it is nice to see mature, experimental dramas; they are necessary should television continue to evolve.

            With some luck, HBO will renew The Leftovers for a third season. Television needs it.