Saturday, March 5, 2016

"The Leftovers," Year One

There are two important things to keep in mind about "The Leftovers." First, despite sharing creator Damon Lindelof, this isn't "Lost."  Second, despite a premise that is very similar, this isn't "Left Behind."  In fact, I think a lot of genre fans and the usual crowd that enjoys Christian-themed media are really going to hate "The Leftovers."  I, on the other hand, think it's one of the most brilliant shows of the last few years.

On October 14, 2011, 2% of the people on Earth disappear, seemingly at random.  The event is called the "Sudden Departure," and there is no explanation for it.  Three years later, in Mapleton, New York, we are introduced to several characters who are still grappling with the loss.  This includes Sheriff Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), local reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), and unlucky Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who lost her whole family.  The town is also home to a group of the Guilty Remnant, a cult that embraces a nihilistic view of the Sudden Departure, and seeks to perpetually remind the community of its grief.  They're lead by Patti (Ann Durst) and Laurie (Amy Brenneman), and they're recruiting.  Finally, there's also the tale of Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a mysterious faith healer, and his young followers Tommy (Chris Zylka) and Christine (Annie Q).

Though "The Leftovers" has been characterized as a mystery show, because of the Sudden Departure, the series has shown absolutely no interest in coming up with an explanation for any of its supernatural occurences.  And though there are several episodes that deal with spirituality and the parallels with the Rapture are obvious, I wouldn't be too quick to call this a Christian show either.  Religion, like science, has failed to provide any answers in this universe.  Rather, "The Leftovers" is about exploring the ways that people have reacted to a sudden, unexplainable trauma.  Joining the Guilty Remnant, with its chain-smoking, silent, emotionally numb bystanders clad all in white, is one particularly dramatic way of coping, but there are plenty of others.  We watch Sheriff Garvey struggle to parent Jill, who engages in self-destructive behavior to deal with the loss of her mother.  A man named Dean (Michael Gaston) goes around shooting stray dogs, who he decides have turned on humanity.  The reverend looks to God, but is faith is constantly tested.  Tommy believes in Holy Wayne, but keeps him at arm's length and can't explain why.  Most of the central characters are struggling with some form of grief, depression, or crisis of faith.

I find myself hesitant to recommend the show to other people because of how relentlessly bleak and heavy it is.  Unlike other series that are concerned with getting you to think or laugh or be impressed with its aesthetics, "The Leftovers" is chiefly concerned with getting you to feel, and to feel deeply.  It keeps pushing and pushing, letting the little psychic shocks and hurts compound over multiple episodes.  To some, the process is slow and boring, and to others, infuriating in its lack of answers.  I, however, enjoyed how the series constantly kept me off guard and feeling vaguely disturbed.  The emotional damage wrought on the characters is as terrible as any physical wound, and once you start caring about these people, it's devastating to watch them suffer.  Or in the case of the Guilty Remnant, to transform their suffering into blankness through extreme alienation and self-abnegation.

Parts of the series work better than others.  The Garveys aren't nearly as interesting as Nora, Matt, and Patti.  Carrie Coon in particular delivers the show's best performance, and the spotlight episode devoted to Nora is the show's strongest hour by far.  Tommy and Holy Wayne never felt fully developed, a curious side-story that never made a very good case for itself.  However, I found everything involving the Guilty Remnant fascinating, especially as the most significant members are all older women, and many of the scenes are silent, which surely posed some significant challenges to the production.  The worldbuilding is very strong, and often the little details of news reports and pop culture offer good insights.  At the same time it maintains this air of unknowable forces at work that I found tremendously appealing.

The show is occasionally manipulative - the score lays it on awfully thick - and prone to pushing buttons in ways that are downright uncomfortable.  However, it continually impressed me with how far it was willing to go into some pretty hairy territory.  I've never seen any other media tackle themes of depression and loss like this, that is absolutely fearless about confronting the viewer with the characters' hopelessness and helplessness.  It is a very difficult watch at times, but also absolutely riveting.


No comments:

Post a Comment