THE LEFTOVERS begins in suitable style. A short vignette of one woman’s experiences of the moments immediately around the point that 2% of the world’s population disappears, as her baby goes too. It is an excellent start, unsettling, disturbing, and emotional, and it establishes the ‘what’ of things immediately, with a classic news cast montage over the subsequent images covering the executive summary; 2% disappeared, evenly, across the world; no one knows how, or why; that’s it. It’s a chilling premise, and very much worthy of a treatment that isn’t specifically about the rapture. And ostensibly, it seems not to be. It is, absolutely, and literally, just a thing that happened. And that’s fine by me.
Because it has Damon Lindelof’s name all over it, there are certain expectations people may have about the show. That extraordinary premise is one of them, and that no answers to the ‘why’ of what happened will ever be forthcoming. Lindelof’s been pretty clear about that himself, and I don’t have any issue with it. It doesn’t need an explanation, this isn’t some mystical mystery to be unraveled for closure, it is a story about the exact opposite, about what happens when you absolutely cannot have closure. We will, and the people of this world will, absolutely never have this thing explained, so just start dealing, as best you can. And I am very good with that.
But there is another part to this because beyond big mystical mysteries I think Lindelof struggles with the ‘why’ of a lot of things and there are more questions than just the disappeared here – and my fear is that there is not a proper explanation for why people do things, for what has occurred in the aftermath. I fear it is just a set of events and actions purely to create a mood, to make us feel, without really getting at what the characters truly feel, or why they feel it. And after seventy minutes, the jury remains firmly in deliberations over that question.
Past that opening, we get to the present day of the show, some three years later. Starting with our ostensible hero, or at least lead protagonist, Police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), It’s obvious we’re in a strange world, where people are shooting otherwise respectable looking dogs in the street. It’s a pretty bold opening, sure to alienate some people immediately. People like dogs…
It begins a four stranded plot that holds together rather well. Garvey, as he goes about his business gives us the insight into the town, but also his own personal struggles. A short plot, following a congressman, to a spiritual ‘guru’ who hugs away his pain – this serves primarily to introduce the guru. Teens at the local high school, who seem to have fallen even deeper into nihilism and experimental behavior than is typical for teens, and the ‘GR’ – Guilty Remnant – an unusual survivors cult, who seem to feel that the event, the departure, has left the remaining people of the world bereft of meaning. It’s an abiding theme, nihilism and meaninglessness, and one I’m not entirely happy with, in its application or execution.
Beyond the plotting, all these strands are cleverly brought together fully near the end, as we realize over the episode, that the nihilistic teen is Garvey’s daughter, the focus member of the cult, his wife, and a key member of the guru’s entourage, his son. There’s something slightly clumsy about having both a dubious new-age guru, and a bizarre cult in the same show, but that’s a very minor quibble.
There is something massively artificial about this world though. It feels like a take on strange suburbia, where everything seems too ordinary, at first, then too weird, under the surface. The GR have the most extraordinary message painted up in their bathroom – WE ARE LIVING REMINDERS – but there’s something about the font, the formatting of this sign that feels, off. Quotes from Wittgenstein, of all people, pop up on the fringes. The Police Chief has an extensive back tattoo. Questions arise, organically to the narrative and as inescapable asides; who bankrolls obscure cults? What the fuck happened with his dad? Weirdly disappearing deer statues? There are cut-aways to disconcerting events, quick to enhance the weird. Keeping it weird seems to be the watchword here. And I like weird, but it has to mean something. A lack of meaning seems to be the point here. If they can play that through, if that is the long game, that there is no meaning to be had, narratively, thematically, purposefully, then this will be an achievement. I hope that is it, and I hope they pull it off because it is a lofty target, and the batting average for ambitious leftfield TV right now is above .90.
But I can’t shake that nagging feeling, that there is no meaning because no one could quite work out what it means – and that meaninglessness itself never came up. There are no marks for trying here. Style without substance is exactly what I’m watching out for, and I still feel like I’m sifting through the style, right now. Overt nods to Camus’ THE STRANGER don’t really help. It’s a big ugly sign on screen that shouts “THIS IS WHAT WE’RE ABOUT! DO YOU GET IT? DO YOU GET IT??” and it annoys, rather than informs. The influences here are obvious, but you really shouldn’t shout about them unless you’ve absolutely got them down, or actually, at all.
Some aspects of the plot fare better. ‘Heroes Day’ feels like exactly how a besieged government would respond to the problem of commemorating an incomprehensible event. It is the first thing that happens to have the right ring of truth to it. The events that occur on ‘Heroe’s Day’ also work quite well, giving things a more tangible drive and sense of tension. Still, it isn’t entirely clear what anyone’s agenda is, why the GR do what they do. In fact, there is altogether too much mystery around the GR, without a trace of a rationale.
Other things, go back to seeming odd for no reason. Why – and quite importantly, how – these GR cultists have manila folders on various, seeming random people feels like something else that will get glossed over. They just do have them, so now can we get to the clever bit? Well, no. The clever bit is how they have them. And the subsequent unfolding of that strand of the plot too, still feels illogical. I don’t fully understand why anyone would join this cult, what they have to offer and it would seem that the program makers response to that is to show recruitment taking place, but – BUT – they’ve taken an enormous leap; I still do not for one second understand, or even buy, Liv Tyler’s character just showing up, and asking to stay. Her ersatz existential crisis doesn’t cut it for me. It’s a perfect example of this inability to fully articulate the ‘why’ of anything. Why has she joined the cult? Because she was having an existential crisis. It isn’t enough. There are steps missing. This, this exact detail right here, is where I believe Lindeloff loses people. It’s certainly where he loses me.
Nihilistic teens are also not so interesting. Nihilism as the overwhelming experience of this event seems too one sided. Existential angst too obvious a way to go. Bizarrely hollow sexual and dare-devil experiences codified into a moronic game feels wholly insincere. It’s pretentious, in the way of acting as if the ‘why’ is both critical but also obvious. As though because you can’t tell what the fuck any of it means, you must not be ‘in’, or ‘savvy’. People’s freewill is not subverted so easily. People do what they’ve always done, and their fundamental natures cannot be so easily adjusted, or adapted.
The Dogs, too. It’s bullshit, and I want to call it out. Unless there is some unspoken element or aspect of these disappearances that’s not being presented, I can’t see it having this effect on animals; the effect on people is wholly psychological, so what possibly could be the effect on animals? I grasp, and appreciate, the effect of a missing master. But I don’t believe that this phenomena would make them ‘snap’.
It is a pet peeve of mine, that too often existentialism is understood in dismally literalistic ways. ‘Existing’ – vs ‘not-existing’ is not the crux of the philosophy. Not the point of it. Existentialism is a philosophy founded the immutable fact of existence. What it is to ‘be’ and what ‘being’ is founded in. It is not founded in the simplistic opposition of ‘not-being’.
Later elements remain typically high quality. It does a beautiful job of touching on all the widest implications of the event – the TV montage of departed celebrities, is gold dust. Information is conveyed beautifully through images. As the threads are drawn together, fully connecting all the elements of the broken Garvey family, we finally get to see the big picture through a clever set of shots, that are a testament to visual storytelling though they almost overplay their hand, with the phone call to the absent son confirming what the audience should have already realized. It’s not too far, it doesn’t get out of place, but it slightly undercuts the visual poetry of the moment.
And a final thing, the deer motif – this is the third major TV show to have that, and it gets old. I have seen more antlers on the major, ‘grown-up’ TV shows this last six months, than you would find at the average hunting lodge. Here, it’s another ultimately unsubtle metaphor, and the backdrop to more deliberate weirdness I don’t really need. Bookending your opening episode with dog shooting just feels like overkill, to me. It’s slightly bludgeoning, again, like name dropping Wittgenstein, or Camus. I get it, I really do. I just wish they had both a more subtle metaphor, and a more insightful one.
THE LEFTOVERS has a beautiful look and feel, entirely down to the excellent work of Peter Berg, one of my favorite modern directors. The picture quality, texture of the images, framing, editing, all of the technical elements are utterly on point. Every aspect of this show is powerful and well made, including the acting, all around. Berg’s personal style is very strong, with a distinct feel. He retains a powerful, almost aggressive style, without losing artistry or expression, or getting tied up in machismo; he’s the natural heir to McTeirnan, to my mind. BATTLESHIP aside, I always look forward to his work, and this is no exception. I do say, it remains a worthwhile watch for the direction alone. Whether that sticks through further episodes, as Berg is no longer responsible, is another matter.
The only judgment remaining is on the writing, and even there, it is hard to fully call. In the details, it remains excellent. Only the largest elements, the biggest ideas, the themes and metaphors and big picture plotting remain in question. That’s what will take time to appreciate and make the call on. So much of what was here was just so willfully odd, I can’t say for certain if it means anything, goes anywhere and comes to a fulfilling conclusion, or if it’s just pseudo-philosophical bullshit.
To provide a counterpoint, the pseudo-philosophical bullshit expressed perfectly but McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in TRUE DETECTIVE informed the events on screen, but wasn’t of them. It was one man’s perspective on some awful events, and in the final analysis, that philosophy was what was under assessment through the show. Rather than present and endorse it, it put it out there, and then left it to the viewer to decide how true it was, how relevant. Here, the events themselves, and the way they are being presented is the philosophy. To reject the ideas of THE LEFTOVERS would be to reject THE LEFTOVERS, because it leaves us no choice. So I cannot come to any strong decisions as to what this show is, or how I really feel about it just yet. But I am pretty certain that whatever I end up feeling about it, better or worse, I will feel very strongly. I think a lot of people will, and I think there’ll be strong proponents of both views.
I will definitely continue to watch this show, to see how it develops. With just a few right moves, it could easily be another stunning win for TV in the last few years. But it is no TRUE DETECTIVE, and unless it has some serious aces up its sleeve, I don’t think it will ultimately be remembered among the year’s best.
Captain Dan Porsa is a man of many interests, though few useful occupations. After some time in Her Majesty's Service, he is now living in New York. When he finds time away from his primary role as governor of two small dogs, he enjoys films, books, exercise and intermittently writing short fiction. As an Englishman, he finds his opinion is taken very seriously on all matters, except food and coffee; ironically, these are often the only things he is right about.
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