I reviewed this show right back at the beginning, and honestly, I feel as though everything I said then remains extant now. THE LEFTOVERS is by turns frustrating and fascinating, and I’ve got to talk about it.
Fundamentally, this is a technically excellent show. The acting is great, the direction goes from very good to great, depending on who’s behind the camera – Peter Berg got it off to a brilliant start, and Mimi Leder did, as usual, an excellent job on last weeks episode. The production values are high; the whole thing breathes quality with every frame. Even the writing, in the details, in the characterization and dialogue, is really very good. And still, here I am going what the actual hell is the point of any of this?
Because the issue remains, what is the point of any of this? Is this a mystery show? Because it feels like it, often, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what the mystery was. I know, I know; 2% of the global population disappeared. Look, it’s a thing, it happened, get over it. That’s not the focus of this show, merely the premise, and it isn’t anything they’re going to be addressing in a hurry either; at least, I really hope not. I’m glad, frankly. Establishing the world is critical in a show like this. As far as I am aware, the world of THE LEFTOVERS is our world, in three years, if the Sudden Departure occurred tomorrow. But I don’t believe that, none of it feels quite right.
I don’t believe any of the more extreme responses in this world. I totally believe that a large number of cults would spring up in the aftermath of this event, but I don’t believe any of them would look like the Guilty Remnant, because I don’t believe any set of circumstances would enable an organization along the lines of the GR to function. I don’t believe in the GR. I find it ridiculous. There are elements to it I get, sure. Wearing all white is hardly the freshest trick in the Big Book of Being a Cult. Smoking, as a point of ‘devotion’ of commitment to the fact that we’re all dead, we just don’t know it yet, I like. The group houses, the slogans and so on; that all seems about right. Giving away all the possessions, that too makes sense (particularly since it helps answer one of my more pressing questions, how the hell are they financing this?). But I stick on the whole ‘not talking’ thing. Because it’s a writerly contrivance to make things easier. I mean, it’s bullshit.
They’re out there, all the time, trying to get some kind of message across to people, so why exactly won’t they speak? I don’t believe I’ve seen anything to explain the rationale, and in the meantime I’ve been immensely frustrated by it as a viewer, because it means they can’t speak – they literally can’t speak for themselves – so they can’t figuratively speak for themselves, either. I DO NOT understand why anyone would join the GR. I guess the name is supposed to help you out; they feel guilty for still being here. But why? why is ‘guilt’ their emotion of choice here? Who can say; they certainly can’t.
Further, I still completely fail to grok their recruitment methods. Lets just gloss over the curious question of where and how they’re getting manila folders of data on suitable targets – who’s researching these ‘candidates’ and how, exactly? – but I DO NOT understand how the passive aggressive technique of following someone about and staring at them blankly whilst smoking compels them to join up. Liv Tyler’s (Megan) first reaction, of deep frustration and sorrowful anger, felt on point. They seem like psychopaths and they’re a painful reminder of a terrible event. But I don’t follow the algebra that then leads to her turning up on their doorstep the next day, and asking to try it out for herself. Seriously:
That is it, isn’t it? Did I miss something? It’s possible, I guess. It’s things like this that leave me feeling the whole exercise is artificial. Every so often things happen because that’s what the writers want to happen, and it’s not enough. It’s even worse, because by this point I’m pretty sure the entire point of Megan’s storyline is to illustrate and illuminate the GR, it’s methods, ideaologies and appeals, and it’s completely failed to do that, because I still don’t get why she’d join them, and why the nonsense they put her through would keep her in. The fact that her fiancé immediately gave up on here, doesn;t care and conveniently excited the narrative doesn’t help. I mean, Tuesday he wants her to marry him, and Thursday he’s done because she had a wobble and went to a cult? What a dick. Perhaps that’s what I’m missing, that Megan is a weakminded twit and an incredibly poor judge of character. Or maybe the writers just needed that to happen. And of course, he could come back and I’ll eat some more humble pie. But I don’t think so.
And I don’t believe that the governmental response to the up-tick in cult activity would be to add a couple letters to the ATF and then let them go all ‘Waco’ on the situation. The fact that Waco happened, essentially means you’d need to go through some significant, sustained societal and governmental changes before anything like that could ever happen again. And no, I’m sorry, the Sudden Departure alone is not enough to rewrite all the rules like this. Unless 2% of the world’s population included every journalist, I doubt you could even begin to get away with it. Mass arrests, I could believe; interment camps and ‘facilities’ I could believe. Pitched gun battles and Rio/Favela-style extermination squads? No. Never. That moment at the beginning of Episode 2 almost turned me off the whole show, right there.
Cult or no cult, those are people, and they are people’s people. Even if they were in cults, other people would want them out. Other people would be mindful of where they are, and maintain a watch. You don’t just swoop in and gun them all down. And then, in the fifth episode, the ATFEC offered to casually come through town and just wipe out the GR. In town. This isn’t some desert cul-de-sac, this is small town America. Up-state New York. People notice. Even the people who’d turn a blind eye to a good old-fashioned stoning, might blanche a little at government storm-troopers massacring their former friends, neighbours – family. It. Cannot. Be. Done. Not in this world we live in now, and not in this world after a cataclysmic event, certainly not if it leaves most institutions and societal structures up and running, albeit a little shaken. Personally, I’d expect people’s sense of value of the lives of others to increase, not descend into the earth, or just disappear along with the 2%.
The people behind this show are too smart to create a scene like that, and not have Waco at the forefront of their minds. Hell, the comparisons run so deep it can’t be anything but deliberate. A desert compound, with a weird, messianic character surrounded by armed worshipers and a small harem? So it’s clearly an analogy to Waco. And again, I’m left asking; why? What for? What, exactly, are we saying with that? Because this is a show that wears its symbolism, it’s analogies and metaphors, on it’s sleeve. Pins them to it’s chest like medals. The signs are so obvious, they appear to be signed themselves. THIS IS A SYMBOL.
Another great one, the rememberance day in the first episode. Clearly, it’s trading on the iconography of 9/11 rememberances, and that’s kind of smart. The disappearance here, and 9/11 have some critical shared points of reference. Both, massive, globally significant events which nevertheless caught up many people, almost wholly at random, in tragedy. It must be hard to cope, to grieve, when your loss is both massively significant, but also personally random. The attacks on September 11, 2001 were massive, critical events in global history, loaded with meaning and importance; but almost every death was a hideous, random event, full of utterly private tragedy. These extremes, in the same moment, the same thing, must be hard to reconcile, and only make the grief, the confusion and pain, more intense. And the same can be said of the event on the show. And they tie them together by cribbing 9/11 memorial services. Reading the names, referring to the randomly gone as ‘heroes’. Indulging in private grief in a shared, open space. It’s too clear to be ignored. But beyond that connective tissue I’ve described, beneath the surface similarity, they have nothing else. No deeper point to make, nothing to throw an insight into either tragedy, the fictional one or the actual, real one. It’s like that guy in a meeting making the banal point, or asking the self-defeating question, simply to be seen to participate. Okay, everyone’s looking; now what? And nothing, there’s nothing really there.
THIS IS SYMBOLIC OF A SUB-HEADING
This is the crux of the issue. An inverse of the old metaphor; it’s got a wonderful, shiny new set of fine clothes to ride out in – but there’s no emperor inside them. It happens again and again, either making painfully obvious points, in subtle ways, or else subtly making no meaningful point at all. Take Laurie throwing her lighter in the sewer, and then desperately attempting to recover it later, but failing. We get it, once you’ve cast something off, it may not be possible to get it back. The lighter represents her family, her children and her marriage – DO YOU SEE? DO YOU GET IT? – how could you not, it might as well have had a day-glow sign around it pronouncing “SYMBOLISM HERE”.
Or else, Garvey, and his constant issue with misplacing things, and then determinedly recovering them. Bagels, lost down the back of the machine, only to be finally recovered, burnt and stale. Or his shirts – I guess they’re his shirts? I mean, if those really are his shirts, he’s got to be the most pussified police chief in America. And if they’re not, then he’s losing it. And also, if they’re not, I’m half assuming the GR took his ‘white’ shirts? That they – or Laurie – got in overnight, hence the alarm issues? I mean, that better be the explanation, because it sticks out too much otherwise. It would suggest they never thought about it, because it could just as easily have been his blue pants, and I’d hate to think they aren’t considering this. Further, if those were his shirts that he recovered, what the hell is up with the laundry guy? Why would he be such a dick in the first place? Either way, the whole thing is problematic. But it was a cool scene, wasn’t it?
That’s another problem, I think too often these events happen because the individual scene is cool, or works well. The writers doing things because, again. The big picture never seems to sit right, but at various moments you’re so enthralled or entertained, you don’t realize until afterwards. It’s like being seduced, used for sex and then abandoned. Yes, it’s frustrating and upsetting after, but damn if it wasn’t great while it was happening. Or another item Garvey couldn’t let go of, the baby jesus doll, that actually no one – including the priest – even cared about, because the thing in itself is of no importance, only the symbol it represents. See, it’s symbolism about a symbol; symb-ception! Sorry, ahem. But, but – it keeps happening, and I keep ‘getting it’, but not really getting it. What am I supposed to be learning here, that things aren’t important, only the ideas behind them? But the people who departed were important, so that can’t be it. And the GR, their ideas, the things behind them are utterly irrelevant, only the people themselves matter. Maybe the point is that only Garvey see’s that, but he doesn’t come across as all that wise. Is it possible that it is simply supposed to be somewhat contradictory, to contain a character beat and then simply keep the viewer off-balance, to unsettle or disturb? If so, that’s really cheap and very irritating. But I simply cannot discern anything else in it, no matter how much it exclaims its own significance and deeper meaning. The repeating pattern of the show, I either get it, like I’d get a right hook from Mike Tyson, or else I don’t get it at all, and both ways leave me feeling unsatisfied, at best.
After a while, of course, some elements begin to fit together; they’d have to, right? The dogs, for example. Part foreshadowing, part metaphor, they are there to set us up for the extermination of the cults, and the cult members. In the same way that the departure affected the dogs, drove them crazy or feral or what have you, in the same way that they were unable to cope, so some people are, too. And, apparently, we ned to kill those people off. I still struggle with this whole aspect. It’s not particularly naturalistic, I refuse to believe it would ever be a response to this situation, unless somehow there’s something else at work here, some piece of plot information we are not currently privy too. But then, it is no longer particularly clever, merely a narrative, a story being told with story tellers tricks, but no greater point. And we come back again to my initial objection, that the writers – that Damon Lindelof – are simply using the trappings of substance, of deeper meaning and metaphor, to pull a sleight of hand trick with a straight story, and have no greater depth to offer. I don’t entirely believe that to be the case. I’m sure that the ambition present here is genuine. That the desire to make more complex points, draw out deeper subtleties, shades of sense and understanding of humanity is sincere. Still, the ambition seems to far exceed the ability.
The Elephant In The Room
Okay, I’ve done it now, I’ve brought up Lindelof. Like a number of people (Orci, Kurtzman, Snyder, off the top of my head) who are currently playing in the worlds of ‘geek-faire’ he attracts a fair amount of hatred online. Of course he does, nobody spills useless, misdirected bile quite like a geek with time on his hands. And that’s not to say that I’m pointing fingers here. It’s a very small minority of people, who speak loudly because they’ve got absolutely nothing better to do with themselves – which already says a lot, I think. But regardless, there it is. These guys incite some very strong negative reactions, for various reasons. And I’m not about to go digging through all that, either. Whatever gold might be found at the bottom of the dung heap is so pitiful in amount, so utterly filth encrusted, I’d rather just leave it there.
But Lindelof is almost a special case. The ire he attracts is principally from those who willingly followed him, and were excited by what he was doing. LOST, when it first appeared, was an insta-classic, and it helped to re-write the rules of big TV, though between it’s own ultimate failings, and the inability of anyone to capitalize on the space it left behind, I’m not sure whether those rules will really stick. LOST setup an incredible, complex, rich world, with deep mysteries, and intriguing and fully realized characters. And then it slowly danced around it all, until it came to a rather unsatisfying dénouement that was part half-baked mystical revelation (for the characters. Sorry, loyal viewers.) and part high quality fisticuffs. And a lot of the criticisms I’m aiming at THE LEFTOVERS very much apply to it. the use of seeming metaphor and symbolism to create a sense of deeper literary merit that was ultimately unrealized; events and character actions occurring ‘because’; a deeply frustrating refusal to answer to address questions of both narrative and meaning that were asked, were set-up carefully and over extended periods, before being ultimately abandoned. Hard to avoid the conclusion that there never were any actual answers to be had – and no, that is not itself an answer. So Lindelof has form.
But that’s only the bad half of both. He also has some really great stuff in there. the man can write people, interesting, unusual, engaging people, really, really well. If the characters on LOST hadn’t been so goddam good, the whole mess would have collapsed under the weight of its own pseudo-mythology almost from the start. They were compelling, truly compelling and they were what kept people coming back, kept them hooked, and made them so forgiving on the subject of the deeper issues. The structure – re-used in THE LEFTOVERS – of exploring individual characters in depth through an episode, whilst the greater story rumbles on in the background was brilliant, and left us with many truly excellent individual episodes. Un-surprisingly, the two best episodes of THE LEFTOVERS, by far, have both been on this template. I could talk about the brilliance of the Priest’s tale – and how great of an actor Christopher Ecclestone is, by far themost under-rated and under-utilized actor around – and how perfectly done Nora Durst’s kafka-esque nightmare was, both as its own story and as metaphor for the whole damn mess. But I’m not here to cut the prime meat, today. If THE LEFTOVERS was wholly bad, I wouldn’t even be talking about it, so of course there’s a lot of good in it. I’m just trying to cut out the fat, to get a better look at it.
There is a pattern here though, smart dialogue and character beats, mixed with incredibly dumb actions solely to suit the narrative – PROMETHEUS penis snake handling, anyone? – and I don’t know why he does it. What I’d really like to see from the guy is a small anthology series with lowered ambitions and higher standards. A show telling the stories of people who live near and around each other, just as a set of mini-dramas. I think he could blow something like that out of the water, and let’s just leave the Sci-Fi trappings, the supernatural overtones, and the cod-philosophy at home. That’s a show I’d love to watch.
So, Now What?
So. Anyway. I’m kind of stuck with THE LEFTOVERS, and I haven’t even attempted to touch my enormous laundry list of questions that may or may not be addressed, and which may or may not have suitable answers, or more heavy handed but narratively contorted symbolic or metaphorical weight to them. Like, what’s up with the 20 G’s Garvey senior buried in his back-yard for the priest, who keeps it there, or why the Mayor is involved with the clearly older, lunatic, former Chief of Police, and no one in town knows or cares? Where are the damn journalists??? Nevermind the other questions that have clearly got an answer that’s being held back for effect, and are likely to have limited impact, like: did the GR kill their own? Either way, it’s annoying. If they did, they’re legit crazy people. If they didn’t, why is there such ambiguity over it, dammit? Who the hell is the Death of Dogs, anyway? An ATFEC agent, I have $20 on it. Is Sacred Wayne really magic, or do people just need a little catharsis? I could go on, and on, and on. So many open questions, and a lot of them go nowhere.
And, again, I like this show, I really do. Some of those questions will get answered, and the pay-off will be worth it. But it’s all the little stuff, the around-the-sides stuff. The big stuff, it either underwhelms, or actively irks me. And maybe I’m all wrong, and it’s work of stunning genius that will only be appreciated in its final moments. That’s no sarcasm, I could believe that. I’m just not expecting it. I am expecting some high quality TV, and a few too many sudden left turns in the plot, to really be able to enjoy it all properly. It’s not bad, but it isn’t great. And I think it could have been great.
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.
Sep 18, 2014 0
Sep 18, 2014 0