By Christian DiMartino
I have been reviewing movies (unprofessionally) for the better part of 6 years. As it stands, there aren’t really any new movies to review. In fact, the television show I am discussing ended nearly 3 years ago. But that distracts from the point I was leaning towards. What I was getting at was this: when it comes to reviewing movies, I simply enjoy reviewing the awful ones, and for a number of reasons. One is because I feel as if the writing material is better. Another is because sometimes, when you’re reviewing a movie that is worth seeing, there is only so much that can be said without ruining the experience, and you just need to experience it for yourself. Alas, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrota’s unsung work of beauty known as HBO’s The Leftovers is such a case.
It was a series I had heard about for many years, but viewing it was beyond my reach because I was not an HBO subscriber. Yet even when I was, in 2018 (one of the best choices you’ll ever make), I still showed up two years late to The Leftovers party. I started the show on October 14th, 2019. Why do I remember that? Because that is a crucial date within The Leftovers universe, and once I was aware of that, I knew that was when I had to start it. I watched all three seasons in about two weeks, and let me tell ya, those were the richest two weeks of my life, and my life is much richer for having witnessed it.
I became obsessed with this show. In fact, I still am, to the point in which I am currently watching it again with someone who hasn’t seen it, so then I can see the awe and joy and shock and bafflement in them that once came over me. I even bought the book because… it can’t end there. I don’t want it to. I feel like Annie Wilkes. Yes, it is only three seasons, with 28 episodes total. Yet it’s a show of such huge ideas and giant risks. It’s the kind of thing I always really respond to. Not since experiencing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia have I been this intrigued and mesmerized, and not since having my homemade curry the next day have leftovers been this good.
I have been wanting to review it since October, yet reviewing television is difficult business. Especially since you have a show of this caliber, of this audacity, of this many huge ideas. It’s also, I must add, severely underrated. Again, I heard about it for years, and was a little surprised to see that it had a total of 1 Emmy nomination. You can imagine my bafflement AFTER seeing the entire thing. I have so many thoughts about it, and re-watching it I can’t help but contain such excitement again. Yet I shall do my best, and hopefully I will be able to properly sell you on it, aside from saying, “WATCH IT.” I mean, you’re quarantined, what else is there to do?
The Leftovers is essentially a series about belief, belief systems, and what people tell themselves in order to be at peace. It’s about a group of people who want answers, and demand them, yet know that they may never get them, hence why they invest themselves in such belief systems. There is something very deep, intriguing and human about such a concept. To me, part of the intrigue (and to many, the frustration) lies in the fact that the show doesn’t always give you answers either. In fact, the big mystery at the heart of the show is answered, but is it? It’s very much left for interpretation, but watching The Leftovers again I couldn’t help but wonder when Lindelof and Perrota knew that they wanted a second season.
The Leftovers is based on Perrota’s own novel. Said novel covers the first season, and yet somewhere along the way the two must’ve really found the potential, the ideas, and the exploration and search for more. In fact, I look at the three seasons of The Leftovers the same way I look at Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy: I love the first one, yet to me the other two are richer experiences (some may disagree with my opinions on those films, but eh I don’t care). As someone who has seen the whole series, you really have to give HBO the kudos for letting these two expand upon their vision, because this is one of those shows that only gets better as it goes along.
So I’ve rambled enough. What is all the hooplah about? Well, the series begins on October 14th. In a very chilling opening, we follow a mother as she is with her crying baby. A seemingly normal day… until the cries stop. The baby has disappeared, the mother is horrified. Yet soon another person around her is searching for their loved one, a car crashes, mass hysteria ensues, and… apparently in that moment, 2% of the population vanished from thin air without explanation, in an event referred to as the “Departure”
So if you go into this show expecting to find answers as to where they went, well, you sort of pick up as the show progresses that that is not what Lindelof and co. are going for. The Leftovers isn’t so much about the mysterious incident as much as it is about how it impacts those who didn’t “depart.” This is indeed a character driven series, with each of its characters being super interesting. The Departure affects the characters at the core of the series in different ways.
At the center of it is The Garvey family- none of which departed. That isn’t to say that the incident left them untouched though. The mother, Laurie (Amy Brenneman, terrific) ditched her family and joined a cult, of the sorts, known as the Guilty Remnant, a band of people who choose to act as if they are with the Departed by means of dressing in white, smoking cigarettes, harassing, and haunting the towns people who continue their daily lives, all through a vow of silence. The son, Tom (Chris Zylka), ditched college and began following the path of a man named “Holy Wayne,” who believed that his hugs had the ability to heal, and who also believed that his spirit was so holy, he is able to impregnate young women so then his spirit can carry on through them. This leaves the dad, Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux, in a performance worthy of multiple Emmys) and daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley, recently seen stealing the show in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) who each try to continue on with their lives, while also fighting their own struggles. Jill is distraught from her mother’s abandonment, and Kevin… let’s just say, he is not well, and I’ll leave it at that.
One of my favorite touches of The Leftovers is the way that these stories are told. In some cases, a certain character can have a bit-part in an episode, and by the next episode, they are front and center, with the stars of the previous episode either being a cameo or absent entirely. This is to be said of Christopher Eccleston’s Reverend Matt Jamison, a man who is pretty distraught by the fact that he is a man of God, and he wasn’t taken… wherever they went. So he sets out to prove that it wasn’t the Rapture by throwing flyers around town, exposing the sins of those who Departed. Eccleston’s does next to nothing in the first two episodes of the series, but he is the star of episode 3, and not only does he grab your attention immediately, but he also manages to be the star of the first great episode of the series.
Jamison’s sister, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon, also worthy of multiple Emmys) was affected by the Departure in a much more obvious way: she is the only person in the town to lose her entire family- husband, and two kids. Rewatching The Leftovers, I was able to fall even more in love with this character. Sure, it might be because you really feel for her, because the performance is always phenomenal, and her character arc is beautifully developed by the end of season 3. Yet I also just really love Durst’s constant openness and understanding to the craziness around her. Perhaps she just accepts it by means of coping and search for happiness, but you can’t help but admire the woman at every turn.
These characters serve as the basis of the entire series, and they are such a rich cast of characters that you don’t mind spending time with them. There’s also Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbot, who… man, she’s a weirdo, along with Ann Dowd’s Patty Levin, and each of these characters is worthy of their own spinoff. What’s interesting about these characters is, as the show progresses, you may have no opinion of some of them at the start, and fall in love with them by the end. You might like a character at the start, and then loathe them by the end. You might hate them at the start, but you’ll grow to care for them by the end. It’s one of the show’s constant gifts: reinvention.
This is a show that, without fail, is always reinventing itself as it goes along. I refer back to my comments about the individual seasons above. I love the first season- it’s dark, it’s grim, yet not all of it grips me, yet what does grip me is really gripping and by the end of it, you’ll be sold. Yet with the latter two seasons, it feels as if Lindeolf and Perrotta officially find their footing. They truly get to spread their wings, and fly. When season 2 begins, not only does it begin with new opening credits, but it also begins with a new opening theme song, and I am not kidding, aside from its premise, there isn’t a single character from season 1 until about 35 minutes in. It’s such a ballsy move, yet that is just the way of The Leftovers.
And I mention the new theme song. Well, first off, every song used in this series, whether it be Olivia Newton John, Doobie Brothers, Wu-Tang Clan, The Pixies, etc., may seem out of place… but it always works. Yet I mention the theme for season 2 because I believe it is what defines this series as a whole, and it’s such an upbeat, bright song about a subject that is grim, in a series that is grim. Said song is Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” The song goes as follows: “Everybody is wondering what and where they all came from/ everybody is worried about where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done/ well no one knows for certain if so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll choose to let the mystery be.” The beauty of this is that it taps into how the characters are feeling. It also taps into how the show’s naysayers must be feeling- those who demand their answers. Yet it is also Lindelof’s nod to those who loathed the ending of Lost.
Anyways, back to the show. I love the way that this show reinvents itself as it goes- seen not just in the premiere of season 2, but even more so in the premiere of season 3. I also love the scale of this show. It’s a show of huge giant ambitious ideas, all of which are successful, and yet it’s not a show with giant visual effects extravaganzas or anything. I love the performances as well- each of which serve their fascinating characters well. Most impressive of all though is the way that Lindelof and Perrota take Perrota’s source material and transcend the ideas to areas that you probably never could’ve imagined, all of which builds to one of the greatest series finales ever. I will not discuss what exactly happens in those seasons, because I want the intrigue to come as a surprise. I will say though, the performances from Regina King and Kevin Carroll are utterly flawless.
If you have read this entire essay, then two things: one, you have too much time on your hands, and B, you have enough time to watch The Leftovers. It’s really such a work of fascinating, haunting beauty- a show I haven’t been able to get out of my head for many months. I work at a grocery store, which means that I have put forth a lot of time and effort and make sure you’re all happy while I’m not. So do me and the tremendous crew involved with this unsung masterpiece a favor and watch it. I will never understand how The Leftovers was snubbed across the board, but they can nominate the hell out of garbage like The Big Bang Theory (different genre, but still). Since I will never have my answers and justice will never be served, I think I’ll choose to let the mystery be.