Why ‘The Leftovers’ Is the Best Show on Television Right Now
The final season of starts Sunday. It is traumatizing and scintillating and ambitious and shows Justin Theroux’s butt several times. Why isn’t everyone watching?
The best show on television sounds awful.
It’s a truly terrible problem to have, and a frustrating one for a TV critic shut down by an artillery of cringes and glazed-over eyes and the apologetic “sounds like it’s not for me…”
The first season of The Leftovers was a dismal chamber piece of grief that chronicled the aftermath of 2 percent of the population disappearing off the face of the Earth with no rhyme or reason. It was grueling to the point of off-putting, and thus utterly fascinating.
It got a lot of hard passes.
But then season two—oh, man, that season two—opened things up.
How people move forward, or aggressively don’t, after such an event was only part of the point. It dealt with hope with as much fervor as it dealt with pain. Introducing the town of Jarden, Texas, home of Miracle National Park, where no one disappeared, the show was suddenly rich in dichotomies: faith and hope to counteract nihilism and despair; heroism and spirituality competing with resignation and ruin.
It also took about five full minutes to explain how co-creators Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Tom Perrotta (Election) retooled and revamped the show, who the new characters were, and why it was all so damn clever—Purgatory’s a mid-level hotel, guys!
You lost your audience before you got through the 10-minute silent prologue with the pregnant cavewoman.
Listen, there are shows that I have been implored to watch by people I respect but I knew would never, ever appeal to me. And I was right.
But you all have got to stop sleeping on The Leftovers.
By now, its third and final season, it’s a show that you know is good because you’ve heard it’s good and seen headlines saying that it’s good. But you still don’t watch. I know you don’t watch. It sounds like it’s not your thing! Honestly, with the way it’s so often described, I don’t see how it could seem like anybody’s thing.
But what it accomplishes in its third season is a triumph of concept, entertainment, provocation, cinema, acting, and often even fun that trumps any and all genre- and content-related turn-offs.
The gravitas is still there, and, oh boy, so is the grief—that is more complicated and nuanced than ever. But so is a sense of humor and playfulness befitting a series that has earned the kind of confidence required to pull off a concluding season like this.
To fill in those who have been watching the first two seasons, we’re reunited with the Garveys and the Murphys back in Jarden a full three years after we last saw them in the season two finale.
Part of the fun of Sunday night’s premiere is finding out exactly what they are up to—and who they’re with(!)—so we won’t spoil more than the crucial update that our beleaguered, death-defying hero Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux, more swoon-worthy than should be legal) is now police chief of Jarden and an expert in stopping your heart by filling out a tight tee. He’s still with Nora (Carrie Coon), who is working investigated fraud claims related to the Departure.
We won’t give much more away than to say that everyone seems to be quite happy, which, if you watch The Leftovers, is a fun relief and also completely unsettling.
Luckily, there’s a countdown to keep your anxiety levels suitably stressed. In two weeks, it will be the seventh anniversary of the Departure event, and some think the religious symbolism of the number seven means that it will be the end of the world.
Regardless of how seriously they take that notion, each of the main characters is motivated by it, even if subconsciously, to take care of unfinished business and confront personal demons they’ve carried with them since the original Departure.
It’s not a spoiler to say that mission takes Kevin and Nora to Australia. That much has long been revealed by HBO in promo materials.
It is characteristically Leftovers-esque, though, that Kevin and Nora don’t actually get there until episode four, and their reasons for going will both creep you out and delight you—for what the repercussions could mean and for how much it involves the ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers. (I’m serious.)
There’s no point in telling you much more because if you haven’t watched The Leftovers before it will, like it did before, seem unappealing enough to make you lose interest again and, if you have, you already know that the show is all about the unknown—what we don’t know, what the characters don’t know, what information they’re hiding from others, from us, and from themselves.
Instead, here are some stray notes from my viewing of the season three screeners:
“Amazing Siegfried and Roy monologue.”
“Gary Busey lol.”
“So confused and loving it.”
“FIRST JUSTIN THEROUX BUTT SCENE!”
“Why is Kevin always wet? (Don’t question it.)”
“Is Kevin Jesus?”
“I think Kevin is Jesus.”
“Yup, the Kevin-Jesus thing is what they’re going with.”
“Has this show always been this pretty?” “I’m scared for these people.”
“JUSTIN THEROUX BUTT FLASHBACK!”
Clearly there are lots of reasons to watch, ranging from psychological mindfucks to Justin Theroux’s goddamn sexiness.
As the episodes go on—we were given the first seven of the season’s eight—it becomes clear just how meticulous and spectacular the roadmap for the season has been laid out. Things don’t make sense, but they’re always circled back to, and then your mind is blown.
Still, confusion is the modus operandi, but the thrill of piecing together what is going on is, unlike so many other series, directly related to its emotional impact. And given the omnipresent roots of the drama—these are people whose loved ones were taken from them with no explanation—the emotions run unspeakably high.
These are people who need answers, and, even this far into the mythology, those answers don’t come easy.
It’s the search for answers that is maddening and unsatisfying and exactly the point. In fact, operating under the expectation that easy answers are never going to come—unlike, say, Westworld, where the wait for them is excruciating—The Leftovers settles you into a sort of comfort that allows you to live in the grief and uncertainty and hope and faith and cynicism and all that’s in between.
You’re not searching for the answers. You’re experiencing the feeling, which is something that few television series respect its audience enough to allow them to do.
There’s a sophistication with the way it deals with grief and spirituality, too, that counteracts all the ways we’ve ever seen it dealt with in pop culture. It explores how grief can also breed a lack of compassion—a biting, all-consuming coldness. The haunting Guilty Remnant and their like prove how pack mentality doesn’t only thrive off chaos and uncertainty, but also grief—and the pack isn’t always forgiving.
Especially in this season, in which several characters truly believe that Theroux’s Kevin is some sort of Messiah—given how many times he’s thwarted death—religion factors heavily. There is a latent judgment of people of faith, but then also of those characters who judge people of faith. The show uses church and religion, specifically Christianity, as a universal, grounding tent pole, and challenges your understanding of it completely.
But for all this talk of heady topics, the show is accessibly and exceptionally funny. Sure, the humor is dark—this is a series about death, after all—but it’s gut-busting, especially when delivered from Coon.
The music cues are a wonder to behold. In the first string of episodes there are uses of folk hymns, “Protect Ya Neck” by Wu-Tang Clan, the Perfect Strangers theme song, a jazz remix of “Reach Out and Touch Me,” and A-ha’s “Take on Me” that are positively genius.
I don’t know what else to say. Great music. Creative intelligence. Hella emotions. Justin Theroux’s ass. You have to watch this show. You’ll like it, I swear. This is my public service.