“We all basically live in a world that we define by the people who have disappeared.”
We live in very strange times now. Millions of people are contracting a deadly virus that we have no cure for, as of yet. Hundreds of thousands are dead and no one knows when things will get back to being “normal”. Everyone talks about “a new normal” but you ask anyone how that looks like and no one knows the answer. There have been films like Contagion that showed how a pandemic happens and what can be done administration-wise, and there have been countless shows and movies which have dealt with probably every dystopian scenario I can think of.
But what about dealing with losing loved ones? What about dealing with death and the trauma it brings? How to cope with that lifelong sadness and try to move on? In my limited viewing experience, the HBO drama The Leftovers is the only content that has ever gone into that strange place that so many of us have been in at some point and explored it to the best of its abilities. The Leftovers is my favourite TV show of all time, just because nothing I have seen explored humans the way this show did.
The Leftovers starts with a simple premise. One fine day, two per cent of the Earth’s population vanishes without a trace or explanation, and the other ninety-eight per cent is left to search for answers and to grieve the loss of those who are gone. They are left behind to wonder whether this was an act of God, as he chose the ones to go to heaven, and left behind the sinners through this biblical event. The show is adapted from Tom Perrotta’s brilliant book of the same name (I cannot recommend reading that enough) and is created by Damon Lindelof and Perrotta himself. The show has three seasons comprising of 28 episodes only and while the book is completely adapted in the first season, Perrotta and Lindelof wrote original material for the next two seasons, and unlike Game of Thrones, this show gets even better when it goes beyond the book.
The Leftovers explores the lives of a few people in particular after the Sudden Departure phenomenon and it’s through their experiences that the show tries to seek certain answers, mostly about the purpose of our existence in this world. It follows Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the police chief of the town of Mapleton, and his family, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a woman from Mapleton who lost her husband, son and daughter in the Sudden Departure, and the members of a shadowy organization called The Guilty Remnant.
“To this day, she’s still sad. Because there’s not some finite amount of pain inside us. Our bodies and minds just keep manufacturing more of it. I’m just saying that I took the pain that was inside of her at that moment and made it my own. And it didn’t hurt me at all.”
I saw The Leftovers when I was going through a difficult phase in my life, and when I got done with it, I genuinely had the urge to change my life completely, to make it better and that is when I realized how special this show was. The Leftovers is not an easy watch. It’s not random jokes over a laugh track or a tightly written crime thriller or a CGI-heavy fantasy piece. It’s a show that takes the task of asking big questions like “Is there a God?” and “How can we live life with so much pain inside us?” among others. So it’s not for those looking for a light watch to uplift themselves but then for most of us, our lives aren’t easy either, and we never seem to be able to acknowledge that fact.
The Leftovers has a bad reputation for being depressing, and it is at times, but it also balances that with some humour and optimism. We cannot expect a show that deals with the aftermath of losing 140 million people all at once to be like F.R.I.E.N.D.S now can we? But if somebody can stick through a slightly difficult first season, The Leftovers is amazingly rewarding by the time it gets to the end. It goes into places of uncertainty, sadness, and loneliness, where nothing I have seen has gone before but instead of being hopeless, it sort of tells us that it’s alright that we haven’t figured out how to cope yet, that whatever we feel in times when we are lost is completely valid, and that in those times of darkness, we must trust that there will be a ray of light that will appear in the form of a person or something else and this I believe is the biggest takeaway from this show – that even during its deep introspection of our nature and existence, it doesn’t forget what connects us, which is love and friendship.
The show’s brilliance is buoyed by different aspects. It has one of the best ensemble casts for a television show. Justin Theroux is one of the most underrated actors of our time and without his Kevin Garvey, who’s the centrepiece, the show would never be as good as it is. Whether its bouts of self-doubt about losing his mind, or trying to deal with the absurdity of being portrayed as Jesus, Theroux has to deal with multiple arcs and alternate realities of his character and he handles it with sheer perfection. Carrie Coon is an absolute revelation as Nora Durst, a character who has lost everything and yet holds on to life because she doesn’t know what to do otherwise. The rest of the supporting cast that includes the likes of Margaret Qualley, Christopher Eccleston, Ann Dowd, Liv Tyler and Regina King among others are incredibly cast and don’t miss a beat with their respective characters. There has to be a special mention for Qualley who has reached new heights in her career by using this show as a springboard.
“It just took some people a little longer than others to realize how few words they needed to get by, how much of life they could negotiate in silence.”
Damon Lindelof has proven himself to be a showrunner with an amazing talent for telling stories that wouldn’t get told otherwise. He also somehow knows how to inject new life into stories that people have already come across, whether it was adapting Perrotta’s book or adapting Watchmen into a limited series for HBO as well (which was one of the best shows of last year) but not as a direct adaptation of the graphic novel, but by using certain characters and plot points from it and writing his take about them, which is what he did with The Leftovers as well. He and Perrotta aptly guide the crew to realize their vision for the show and its characters, which results in stunning episodes, which not only have great writing but also contains immaculate direction and cinematography. Many critics often cite “International Assassin” (Season 2 Episode 8) as one of the best episodes made in the history of television.
Lastly, any article about The Leftovers is not complete without a nod to Max Richter’s original composition for the show. Richter’s music provides a richness to the episodes without which they might have turned out to be shallow. It’s his heart-wrenching music that provides the depth during scenes of introspection about loss and grief.
The Leftovers is a show that is quite complex. In a single show, it explores humane themes like loss, love, grief and loneliness while also having metaphysical, surrealist and fantastical elements. I can think of nothing better that one can watch during the present times to get a semblance of how people are feeling around the world, and how things may be for a significant time in the future. You might end up loving or hating the show, but I am lowkey confident that if you give it time, you will definitely be a changed person.
The quotes are from Tom Perrotta’s book.
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