HBO's The Leftovers is one of those TV shows that defies description, which makes this article all the tougher to write. Instead of trying to describe through a lengthy review, I thought I would tell you why I watch it. Maybe I can persuade a few of you to at least give it a look.
Even if I wanted to review the series as a whole, and do it proper justice, it is likely this article would grow even longer than it is. Although only two seasons long, and slated to run only one more, to describe the subtle nuances of the series and each character over the span of twenty episodes would require the writing skills of someone far beyond mine. Instead, as I said, let me tell you why I watch it and why I suggest you do the same.
But first, okay, a bit about The Leftovers...
I know I said I would not offer a review. How about a synopsis? The show, based on a novel of the same name by Tom Poretta, is a "What If" series. It asks the question, what if one day 2% of the world's population suddenly vanished? What would happen after that? What would happen to those who are left wondering what happened to their missing loved ones? Would they try and carry on as if it never happened? Would they blame themselves? And how would the not-knowing affect then going forward?
The series draws the idea from the biblical 'Rapture' concept. However, dismissing the The Leftovers as just another Christian sci-fi series (ie the "Left Behind" books/movies) would be a grave mistake. Yes, people vanish. Yes, people are left behind. However, that is where any similarities end.
Season One begins three years after the "Sudden Departure" event. Rather than take a global view of the event and its impact, the series focuses mostly on one family, the Garvey family, as they struggle to accept the inexplicable and carry on a normal life.
Season Two transplants all of the major characters from Mapleton New York, to Jarden, Texas. Why Jarden, Texas? Of all the cities in the world, it was the only one not to lose anyone on that fateful day. Zero Sudden Departures. Their lives turned upside down at the end of the first season, the characters decide they just want go somewhere where they can feel safe. For them, Jarden (renamed "Miracle" by its citizens) seems to make sense. But life in Jarden isn't as peaceful as they hoped.
So, as brief as I can be, here are a few reasons why I love The Leftovers.
#1: Creator/Executive Producer Damon Lindelof
I was drawn to the series initially because I am a Lindelof fan. He is one of the executive producers and creators of the series. He was formally a co-executive producer on the ABC series LOST. He also co-created LOST with Jeffrey Lieber and the great J. J. Abrams. If you are not aware, LOST was another series that sort of defies description. To say it is about survivors of a plane crash stranded on a (mostly) deserted island is like saying Star Wars a movie about space. LOST was a giant puzzle that forced the viewers to think, pick out clues, and see the bigger picture. I love a series that makes me think. LOST was like an onion. Peel away one layer only to find more beneath. I had high hopes that The Leftovers would deliver in much the same way. I was NOT disappointed.
#2: The Characters
It would take far too much of my time and yours to give you a rundown of all the characters. I really love them all! So as not to bore you by going on and on about each one, I'll just mention a few.
Well, chiefly, my favorite character would have to be Mapleton Chief of Police Kevin Garvey. Played excellently by Justin Theroux, Kevin is a lost soul. His wife has left him and his teenage daughter to join a cult. His son is missing. Worst yet, Kevin is losing his mind, or so it seems. He walks in his sleep. When he awakes, he leans he's done some strange things. He has a father (played by Scott Glenn) who is equally unhinged. He hears voices and only finds peace when he does what they tell him to do. What they tell him to do usually involves Kevin.
Kevin Garvey is a sympathetic character. We feel for him as we witness his slow slide toward madness. Mr. Theroux's performance is especially captivating. We see every panicked moment etched in his face. He knows he's losing his grip, and yet is at a loss as to how to cope with it. He, like most of the characters, is sort of drifting from moment to moment, lost in a wakeful dream state.
Reverend Matt Jamison
Most Doctor Who fans will recognize Christopher Eccleston. He played the titular character in the first season revival of the BBC's Doctor Who in 2005. Here we see him playing a very different character far removed from the eccentric and ever-confident Doctor. As Reverend Matt Jamison, we see a man struggling to hold onto his church while still holding tight to his faith. He does not believe the Sudden Departure of millions to be God's work, even going as far as to expose the terrible deeds of those who vanished. He sees the sudden disappearance of millions as a test.
Like Kevin, we the viewer watch as Rev. Matt struggles to keep on doing the only things he knows how to do: preach the Word of God to a shrinking congregation while struggling to care for his comatose wife. We care for him more as he seems to fall farther and farther from his goals at every turn, even losing his church to the nihilistic cult known as the Guilty Remnant. More on the GR them in a moment. But, as each new obstacle appears before him, Rev. Matt finds a way to keep moving forward somehow.
I just love Patti, played awesomely by Ann Dowd. She is one of the show's most interesting characters. As the leader of the Guilty Remnant, Patti becomes the main foil to the troubled Kevin Garvey. Even after her death at the end of Season One, she continues to be a thorn in poor Kevin's side. Is she a ghost? A hallucination of Kevin's slipping grip on reality? Or is Patti something else entirely? I could tell you, but I rather you watch and find out for yourself. I've said too much already! Patty quite literally haunts Kevin, giving him only half-truths and convincing him to make rash decisions.
I could go on and on about the characters. Carrie Coon's character Nora Durst, for example. She is Reverend Matt's sister. She lost her entire family on the day of the departures and has her own very dark way of coping with the grief. What about Laurie Garvey, played by Amy Brenneman? Kevin's ex-wife suffers one of the most heart-breaking departures of all, which sends her off into the arms of Patti's cult. And what about the stack of new characters in Season Two! Kevin Carroll plays the self-appointed mayor of Jarden, aka "Miracle." Texas. Unhappy with the town's sudden popularity, he often remarks "There are no miracles in Miracle." He and his wife Erika (played by Regina King) suffer their own tragedy when their teenage daughter vanishes. Is she a Sudden Departure too, or is something even more sinister behind her disappearance?
Like I said, I could go on and on about the characters alone. They are multifaceted and played by an incredible group of actors. But I digress...more on the reasons why I love the show.
#3: The Guilty Remnant
In the wake of the sudden departure of millions, many of the world's religions have collapsed. As people search for something to give their lives meaning, cults begin to spring up. Holy Wayne and his group is one. However, the series mostly focuses on the one known as the Guilty Remnant. While much of the world has decided to move on with their lives after the Sudden Departures on October 14th 2011, the members of the GR have other plans. Dressed in all white, chain smoking, never speaking, the GR's main goal is to force the world to remember what happened. By far, the Guilty Remnant is the show's primary antagonist. Their main goal is to disrupt people's lives in the cruelest ways possible. The Mapleton NY chapter was run by Patti Levin (played by Ann Dowd) in Season One. After her death, and a shocking one at that, the group is then led by Meg Abbott (played by Liv Tyler). The group takes an even darker turn Under Meg's leadership in Season Two.
#4: The Music
The music in The Leftovers plays a large part in the story-telling. I love picking out the songs playing and seeing how they fit in the story.
For example, In the Season One episode "Two Boats and a Helicopter" the song "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain & Tennille plays most notably in Reverend Matt's car radio. After the good Reverend has done some questionable acts to gain the money to save his church, the line 'you belong to me now. Ain't gonna set you free now,' makes one wonder what the message might be. Has Rev. Matt crossed a line? And just when he witnesses an attack on a GR member and hits the breaks, we hear the line 'Stop, 'cos I really love you.' Perhaps it suggests Rev. Matt's actions, if done out of love of his fellow man, may still be justified.
Another example of how the series uses music to enhance the story telling is with its use of the song "Where is My Mind" by The Pixies. It has become Kevin Garvey's theme song throughout the show's run. A haunting instrumental version is most heard playing over scenes with Kevin. It sets the mood for Kevin's life, especially at those moments when he is most struggling to keep a grip on his sanity.
In the Season Two episode "I Live Here Now," in order for Kevin Garvey to leave the afterlife, represented as a hotel karaoke bar, he must sing a song. All Kevin really wants to do is get back to his family. When he spins the big wheel of songs, it lands on Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound." A bit on the nose, I suppose. However, as Kevin sings, you feel his longing to get home. Here again the song chosen holds meaning to the character and the story, thus making the episode all the more engaging.
There are many more examples of music as part of The Leftovers story-telling. I invite you to watch the series (and listen) for yourself.
#5: This show is dark
I love shows that are dark and moody. Believe me, aside for a few exceptions, there is nothing uplifting or joyful about The Leftovers. It takes the characters, (and me, the viewer) to a dark place and then drags them (and me) off into even darker places. Among other themes, it is a character-driven study on loss and pain, but with a very dark sci-fi/fantasy edge to it. It may not make you laugh, but it will make you think. The show will crawl into your mind and make a home there. It will keep you guessing as to the true motives of many of the characters, especially the GR. It is so well written and performed that once you start watching, you will not want to stop. The show's surreal moments give the show a dream-like quality. What is real? What is death? Why are we here? The show throws big questions, but in a subtle way. The more I watch, the more I find myself drawn deeper into the world of The Leftovers.
But I only listed a few of the reasons why I can't help but watch The Leftovers, and why I would greatly recommend you give it a look for yourself. There is one thing I should point out. If you watch the series looking for answers as to where the Sudden Departed actually went, you may be disappointed. The series likes to toss out explanations, but they're all red herrings. Even the Season Two folksy them suggests to "let the mystery be." The show is not about where the millions suddenly vanished to or why. The show is about what happens after, specifically to those left wondering - the leftovers.
I promise you, if you are drawn to dark dramas with a sci-fi tilt, and you enjoy a series that challenges you to think, then you will love The Leftovers. I suggest you give it a look.
Season One and Two are available now on HBOGO.COM, but you can officially get the Blu-ray, DVD, or Digital HD version - which I can't recommend highly enough!