Based on a novel by Oscar-nominated writer Tom Perrotta with an ensemble cast starring Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, and Liv Tyler, and written and co-created by Lost alum Damon Lindelof, the first season of The Leftovers had the pedigree to be one of the biggest shows of 2014. Its debut was, instead, modest, a more predictable outcome for an almost ambitious-to-a-fault drama with light genre touches on premium cable.
The premise of the show is maddeningly simple for the sheer amount of melodrama wrung out of it: four years after two percent of the world’s population inexplicably vanished into thin air, those left behind attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives. Much of the first season deals directly with the many unanswered questions left in the wake of the mass departure: Where did the people go? Why were they taken? Was it some kind of apocalyptic omen? Is it evidence of the existence God or the lack of one?
These questions are not resolved within the first season, and most of them probably never will be. Instead, the show’s focus is firmly on the people still around — their faith, their methods of coping, their regrets, their fears. It’s a show about the aftermath of death and loss on a global scale without the unnecessarily complicated overtones that nuclear war, terrorist plots, or large-scale natural disasters would bring to a narrative. It’s a premise that has the roots of major conflict built right into its foundation, but with very little space for resolution.
That lack of any real gratifying catharsis is in many ways what haunts the show. Throughout the entirety of the first season, the characters feel incomplete, burdened with a lack of answers. They exist in a world they no longer understand on any recognizable level, and play parts in situations that have no clear purpose to them. They walk around dazed, morose, but most of all apathetic, and finally cold to the unexplained voids left in their families and communities. As a result, their every interaction is hollow and acrimonious.
In the first episode, the show’s central character, police chief Kevin Garvey, tells a woman her dog is dead. “I don’t care,” she replies simply. It’s an effectively bleak response, but it’s the sheer emptiness of it that ultimately prevails, for better and worse. The audience isn’t meant to make sense of whatever is going on, only to somehow empathize. The show presents a puzzle, but it’s obscured by a thick fog of emotionality and, frustratingly, there is no real conclusion.
It’s fitting, then, that, like much of Lindelof’s television work, The Leftovers is at its most stimulating and profound when focused on specific characters and their personal crises in the midst of the overarching story. Lost — in the end said to be “all about the characters” — found its dynamic narrative strength in cutting between events on the island and fragments of the backstory pertaining to a particular character during each episode. To its detriment, The Leftovers does nothing so simple; its major character moments are locked behind one-off episodes that flesh out important supporting characters like Matt Jamison, a reverend committed to proving that the Departure wasn’t the rapture, and Nora Durst, who lost her whole family — a husband and two children — in the event.
These episodes charitably offer a clear, self-contained story — something the season as a whole struggles to assemble — and give actual insight into the motivations of these hard to understand characters. They are easily the best episodes of the season, and indeed, it’s truly good television in general. The problem is that The Leftovers has only chronically complicated characters and not nearly enough time to explore (or explain) them all.
Naturally, the absence of that kind of high-caliber writing is felt throughout the rest of the season. Among the most frustratingly enigmatic storylines and characters in the show stem from the Guilty Remnant, a pseudo-cult dedicated to reminding (often invasively so) those who have chosen to move on with their lives about the Departure. Once initiated into the group, members are forbidden from speaking, communicate only through notes scrawled on notepads, smoke cigarettes “to proclaim their faith”, and maliciously stalk other townspeople, their unsuspecting prey, hoping to recruit them but more often provoking them to violence.
For being such a big player in the events of the show, the writers are especially withholding with regard to information about the Remnant, reserving key information even as the events of the show revolve around their actions. The audience again is left not to understand the world of the show, but to feel it, to invest in the emotion and not the circumstances of the story. At its absolute best, when it works, it still seems fruitless; at its worst, it’s simply irritating.
That imbalance in the narrative is hard to reconcile, and navigating it becomes more trouble than it’s worth. Every time someone from the Guilty Remnant does communicate with those outside their circle, their messages are agonizingly coy and cryptic. During one exchange with the leader of the collective, when prompted by the latest in a long line of annoyingly inscrutable notebook messages, Kevin Garvey refreshingly asks her, “What the fuck does that mean?” When the show isn’t shoving the relentless pain and suffering of its world down the throats of its audience through endless scenes of screaming, crying, and sudden explosions of violence, it’s wasting time exposing its false mysteries.
It’s fitting that Damon Lindelof would depict an entire world weighed down by unanswerable questions, considering that is exactly what plagues his professional image from Lost to Prometheus to the latest of the Star Trek film reboots. This is a writer scorned by several unique and distinct fanbases that are rabid for some sense of closure or resolution in the fictional worlds in which they invest which he seems to delight in withholding. For the The Leftovers to depict a world of universal dissatisfaction seems almost grossly provocative for him.
In the show, the few characters in the post-Departure world who seem to have some theory as to what happened are depicted in some capacity as loons, and those who have given up completely in the search for answers are nonetheless completely devoted to exposing people to the Departure itself. Everyone else has moved on, just put it in the back of their minds, and they’re shown to be the normal ones. Perhaps that’s Lindelof’s not-so-subtle way of telling people to get over it.
Of course, none of this does anything to alleviate the many faults of The Leftovers’ first season. It’s a show built on ambition, treading in the dangerous territory of genre-based drama and mystery-driven suspense that’s more prone to disastrous failure than critical or commercial success. Through its heavy-handed melodrama and fabricated puzzles, it too often mistakes inscrutability for complexity and overwrought emotions for genuine pathos — thin lines that Lindelof has notoriously walked along for years.
In the first season of The Leftovers, he demonstrably crosses every one of them.
On the other hand, public and critical consensus now seem to agree that season two of the show has delivered a far more satisfying and meaningful product than the first. This should come as no surprise. In season one, The Leftovers’ biggest failings are in its set-up, both of its premise and its characters; what it does with those characters, in contrast, is often far more beautiful and compelling than the rest of the season deserves. It’s always been a show with major potential, even through the low points of its flawed first season.
That the second season has ended with such acclaim is only good news, a testament to the promise hidden in the murky pretensions of the show’s origins. It proves there’s something here worth paying attention to, as obscured as it may be.