When HBO’s “The Leftovers” began to air in 2014, it was an unusually glum show, and to be perfectly frank, it wasn’t very good for the first two episodes. The show tried to explore what grief meant in a world where 2% of the population suddenly disappeared, but unfortunately, almost every character was pretty angry, sullen, and generally just not that interesting to follow around. Of course, one could argue that is exactly how people would react to such an event, but I didn’t think it made for good TV.
But I stuck with it mostly because I liked the themes it was exploring– religion, grief, and meaning– and I liked Damon Lindelof a lot. The show improved as it got deeper into the first season, although it was still hit or miss. (Jill Garvey and her high school friends’ storyline were particularly weak. So was Tommy’s storyline). It wasn’t until episode 6, “Guest,” that I had a “wow” moment. That episode explored the life of Nora Durst, whose two children and husband, suddenly departed, and she was left alone in her grief. Nora was everything the other characters were not: sad and depressed, yet, but also full of joy and searching and life and rage that felt so visceral and real. (It helps that Carrie Coon gives one of the great performances ever as Nora Durst). If the show had more Nora, I felt it could survive.
Almost no one watched “The Leftovers” unfortunately. But I stuck with it into the second season, and I was rewarded. The second and third seasons were among the best seasons in television history. Its series finale in particular was perfect and left me with happy, grateful tears. But still, no one watched.
Now 4 years later, “The Leftovers” critical reputation has only grown, and it is generally acknowledged as a great, great show. Recently I got sick, and I decided to rewatch “The Leftovers,” and I’m happy to report, unlike other shows I’ve rewatched, it has improved with age, so much so that I think it is my favorite show of all time. The third season in particular just blew my mind. It is the most batshit-crazy season of television that I have ever watched, but somehow it works.
What works about “The Leftovers?” First, I think it is one of the few works of art that tries to grapple with religious feelings. As Nietzche proclaimed nearly 150 years ago “God is dead” and this sentiment is apparent throughout popular culture. (Terrence Malick is one of the few expectations). But as Jung and others have pointed out, religion predates Christianity and has always been central to human existence. Many of us would like to dismiss religion as a relic of superstitious, primitive man, but the truth is whether we believe in religion or God or not, we all worship something. It is why have had to find other things to worship with fervor whether it is a political party, sports team, or their Star Wars franchise. (And it explains why fans of these institutions absolutely lose their shit when they are threatened). “The Leftovers” is one of the few works of art to acknowledge religion’s place in the human psyche as a way to construct meaning.
What’s interesting about “The Leftovers” religious exploration, however, is that it never admits to being a true believer. Science and religion are played against each other. Is there a scientific reason that 2% of the population disappeared or was it the Rapture? Did Kevin really die and visit the underworld disguised as a hotel or was he suffering a psychotic break? Or maybe they are the same thing? Did Nora really depart and come back or she was creating a story for herself to feel better? Who fucking knows… and in truth, the answer is not the point. We are such a goal-obsessed society, and we are always seeking finality and answers. As its theme song says, however, “The Leftovers” is content with letting the mystery be.
And the truth is it is all so fucking mysterious. There are no real fucking answers. It is one of the reasons I love zen koans so much. Koans get it. There are no answers with our rationality. “The Leftovers” gets it too. It searches the deepest parts of intuition, the vast warehouse of the collective unconscious, the seat and connection of all our meaning and spirituality. It understands why being here so much, how it is all so beautiful and scary at the same time, but we don’t want it to end, and how much it terrifies us that it will end with no answers. Just darkness. In face of that unknown, we have great art to comfort us, to empathize with us, to help us along the way. Thank God for this fucking show.