I’ve found that when it comes to HBO’s The Leftovers, there’s really no middle ground. When I talk to somebody who’s seen the show, bringing it up always generates one of two passionate responses: That show is brilliant – why don’t more people watch it!? or That show is a dump truck full of anteater shit – why does anybody watch it!? I’m firmly in the “it’s brilliant” camp, but I can see how people could hate the show. It’s extremely depressing, even by HBO standards, the first season had some weaknesses, and it can be hard to put your finger on who or what exactly the show is about from one week to the next. But if that doesn’t bother you, The Leftovers is easily one of the best things on TV right now – but to appreciate it, you have to make peace with the fact that this show is going to ask more questions than it answers.
The Leftovers is set three years after 140 million people – two percent of the world’s population – inexplicably vanish without a trace, never to be seen again, in an event that comes to be known as the Sudden Departure. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who disappears and who’s left behind. Men, women, and children of all religious faiths from all over the world are among the departed. So are the Pope, Condoleezza Rice, Anthony Bourdain, and the entire cast of the ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers (sans Mark Linn-Baker, who has only faked his disappearance in order to start a new life in Mexico.)
If you need to know why these people disappeared and where they went, The Leftovers is going to piss you off. This isn’t one of those mystery-type shows where the protagonists walk around in dark rooms with flashlights discovering clues and learning about ancient prophecies until they dramatically uncover The Truth. On The Leftovers, all the main characters have long since given up on trying to figure out what happened. There’s hints in the background that some people are still on the case – researchers, the government, assorted cults and nutjobs – but none of them seem to be making any breakthroughs, and even if they were, that’s not the story this show is interested in telling.
Instead of chasing answers, the characters we follow on The Leftovers spend their time engaging in a variety of really unhealthy coping mechanisms to try and process the fact that they’ve been left out what appears to be a bonafide act of God. Suburban police chief Kevin Garvey sleepwalks and shoots feral dogs late at night with a stranger who may or may not be a hallucination. His wife has left him to join a cult of mute, chainsmoking nihilists dressed in white, whose only purpose seems to be sabotaging the community’s attempts at healing and closure. Over the course of the first season, Garvey grows close to Nora Durst, a widow who still buys breakfast cereal for her departed husband and children and occasionally hires prostitutes to come over and shoot her while she wears a Kevlar vest.
For my money, this freakshow of human emotion is a lot more interesting than the mystery that touched it all off. Besides, it’s not like we’re lacking for shows where mysteries get solved over time – for that you’ve got The Blacklist, or Scandal, or Homeland. The Leftovers is about grieving people spinning out of control, and while it’s not necessarily lighthearted entertainment, it makes for gripping and relatable drama.
The worst moments of the first season were when The Leftovers flirted with telling a big story that answered questions. The first half of season 1 was dragged down by a tired plotline about Garvey’s estranged son and a charismatic cult leader he’d fallen in with, all of it heavy on prophecy, faith, and Lost-type bullshit. The best episodes were the ones that sidelined the principal cast and dug deep into the lives and struggles of other townsfolk who until that point had looked like bit players – particularly the local reverend, who in the course of one brilliant episode goes from a wild-eyed Bible-thumping dickhead to one of the show’s most tragic figures. Episodes like that one kept me onboard with the show when it was getting insufferable. To showrunner Damon Lindeloff’s credit, he appears to have realized that The Leftovers is at its best when it’s gradually fleshing out its eccentric, wounded characters and the connections between them, like A Prairie Home Companion but with more abject despair.
The second season of The Leftovers has done an admirable job of correcting for the unevenness of the first. The show’s strongest and most compelling characters have picked up and moved from upstate New York to the small town of Jarden, Texas, which has become something of a metaphysical tourist attraction by virtue of being the only town on Earth where not a single resident vanished in the Departure. There’s new mysteries in Jarden, a more focused story, and also black people, who were largely absent from the first season. (The opening credits are better now, too.)
As I write this we’re halfway through the second season, and every episode has been firing on all cylinders. If you gave up on The Leftovers last year, now would be a good time to try and get back on board, because I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it’s on track to become one of those shows that everybody talks about. Give it a second chance and you can expect to see several Emmy-worthy performances, atmospheric directing, and some excellent writing that finds a lot of room for idiosyncratic humor between all the depressing stuff (a landlord, on why people can’t stay the night in one of his commercial properties: “The bathrooms, they’re set up to handle day poops. Not night poops.”)
About the only thing you shouldn’t expect from this season of The Leftovers are answers. But that’s okay. The Leftovers is a show about questions – answering them would be like Walter White going back to teaching chemistry.