The world’s ending. Or, well, it can seem like it. Depending on where you are, measures to stymie the spread of COVID-19 are in effect to varying degrees, but we’re all feeling the stress of it, the uncertainty.
Right now streaming services are helping the self-isolated to pass the time, services brimming with bingeable content all for a monthly subscription fee – but how much of what they hold is just fodder, and how much might actually help us process such exhausting developments?
I’ve started to wonder if a show that went off the air three years ago might not be the perfect ‘entertainment’ while we all perch on the brink…
Based on the book by Tom Perrotta (who was also heavily involved in the show), The Leftovers is a three-season HBO show that deals with the aftermath of an inexplicable global event. On October 14, 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes. Some blame aliens. Some say its the beginning of The Rapture. Nobody knows anything. The point of the show is not the mystery of where so many people went; the point is what would it be like to go on living with that cloud hanging over the whole of society. It’s heavy stuff.
Perrotta and series co-creator Damon Lindelof (LOST, The Hunt, HBO’s recent Watchmen series) actually lean in to the histrionics of the idea. The pilot alone features several characters crying. Tommy Garvey (Chris Zylka) even has a bout of submerged rage in a swimming pool. By the end of episode two, Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler) is pounding chunks out of a tree with an axe, exorcising her directionless rage.
This might not sound like ‘fun’ viewing, and indeed sometimes it really isn’t, but what Perrotta, Lindelof and co created is mightily powerful and strangely prescient for our current world crisis. Over the course of three seasons they investigate – with great audacity – how we react to overwhelming events, both on an individual level and as communities.
Multiple communities, in fact. Season one takes place, primarily, in the leafy town of Mapleton in upstate New York. Season two quite boldly relocates to a Texan town – a statistical aberration from which not a single person ‘departed’ – while season three takes things even further as the show’s varying characters gravitate Down-Under to try to avert another apocalyptic event in Australia, no less.
Religious fervour and spikes in nihilism are investigated. How we quantify grief is called into question via the character of Nora Durst (the astonishingly good Carrie Coon) whose entire family departed without her – another statistical aberration. It’s also frequently a show about faith and how it is tested, most notably through recurring odysseys charted by benevolent minister Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston).
But most of all The Leftovers attempts to reconcile frustration. It’s no coincidence that the season one promotional art features top-billed cast member Justin Theroux (shirtless and ripped) punching cracks into a wall. His Kevin Garvey is the centre of the show; a police chief with a crazy father (Scott Glenn), wilful kids and a wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who has abandoned the family in favour of an eerie chain-smoking cult called the Guilty Remnant. Garvey is the fulcrum of the show, vying with his own mental well-being and his wavering exasperation at a world that no longer seems to make sense to him.
There may be no pandemic at the heart of The Leftovers but, with the sands of our present infrastructure continuing to shift, it certainly correlates with a mood I’ve been feeling. Partly powerlessness. Partly, yes, a deep sense of frustration. Max Richter’s string-heavy music echoes this sense of (fruitless?) searching. For meaning. For answers. The show is about a chaotic event that has massive consequences, even for those not directly affected.
Constants we had assumed unshakeable around us are being questioned – or are outright disappearing – and the result is a collective sense of displacement and unreality. The unusual has (temporarily) become the norm. The Leftovers is about just such a culture shift.
In reflecting – even inadvertently – this climate of unease and uncertainty, The Leftovers can prove therapeutic. Watching it now, during a time of crisis, there’s some reassurance in a piece of work that says to us, “What you’re feeling isn’t unheard of.” It’s murky mirroring comes with a sense of comfort. That these artists can understand or can at least imagine what it’s like to go through such a communal and personal upheaval. That’s where the empathy lies.
We’ve been there before in a few ways. For Western society, 9/11 created a kind of collective trauma that we’re even now still trying to understand (The Leftovers is part of this therapy). See also, for many, the financial crisis of 2008. Huge events that changed lives and similarly gave birth to a sense of teetering. Of being akimbo.
I say all this with a significant caveat. Seeing as the show deals with mass grief, anger, fear and uncertainty, it could prove – for some – immensely triggering. It is not light viewing. Most TV shows, when they receive a home release, come with critical buzzwords like “Thrilling!” or “Hilarious!”. The box for The Leftovers triumphantly exclaims that it is “EXHAUSTING”. No kidding.
But it’s also brilliantly written, endlessly thought-provoking, supremely crafted television of the highest order. Got much else to do?