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The Leftovers: The Best Show on TV You (Probably) Didn’t Watch

"The Leftovers was amazing. And you should watch it."

This past Sunday, the best show currently on television aired its final episode. You can be forgiven for not knowing exactly which show I’m referring to, considering the glut of great television currently on the air. Starz’s trippy new Neil Gaiman adaptation American Gods also calls Sunday night home. And, of course, Twin Peaks, raised from the dead after 26 years away, also haunts the Sunday airwaves. There’s Hulu’s brilliant and harrowing new drama The Handmaid’s Tale. Then there’s Better Call Saul, and Fargo, and Veep, and The Americans (which also just ended a muted, but emotionally complex, season). But I’m not here to eulogize any of those shows. Rather, I’m here to tell you, dear reader, that you likely missed the chance to watch one of the best television shows of the past decade live. I am also here to urge you to dive into this complicated, smart, inspiring, thought-provoking, and wickedly funny show. I’m here to tell you to watch HBO’s The Leftovers.

 To start this plea, I need to explain what makes a show great in my eyes. If you’ve read any of my past lists of shows to watch, or pieces on the best shows you aren’t watching, you may have noticed a theme. I am drawn to shows that focus on characters. I don’t care for flashy shows that emphasize style over substance. That isn’t to say that style doesn’t matter (it absolutely does, and can elevate a show from great to exceptional- see Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal for the best recent example of this). But if the characters aren’t well-drawn, aren’t well acted, and aren’t multidimensional beings with hopes, dreams, pain, desire, and loss, why should we even care about what they are doing within the confines of the show?

And it is there that I want to start discussing The Leftovers (no worries- this will be spoiler-free). It’s a show built on this question: “2% of the world’s population simply disappeared. What happens to those who remained?” It’s not about solving where those people went. Or why they disappeared. Or if they can be found and brought back. It’s about what happens to those who stayed. It’s about the characters. The richly drawn, complex, lost and found men and women who have to move forward in whatever way possible. And boy, what characters they are.

There’s Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux, giving a nuanced and heartbreaking performance), the cop from Mapleton, NY, who didn’t actually lose anyone in the mysterious events of October 14, but who did lose himself. And Nora Durst (the superb Carrie Coon, the show’s beating heart), who seemingly lost everything on that fateful day, but who started to find herself. And Laurie (the stalwart and measured Amy Brenneman), who opted for cynical silence that day, after a life spent listening and dispensing advice and hope. And Matt (Christopher Eccleston, whose performance builds over the three years to a rapturous climax in the final season), who saw the tragedy of those lost as a call to greater faith for all, only to find his own faith tested time and again over the ensuing years. And Meg (Liv Tyler, both regal and terrifying), who was so lost before but who finds a purpose in the aftermath of the monumental event.

This collection of characters will make you laugh and cry. And those they meet along the three season journey only enrich the show. Regina King and Kevin Carroll turn the series on its head when they join up in season two. Ann Dowd’s Patti proves to be the absolutely perfect foil for Theroux’s Kevin throughout the series. And Mark Lynn Baker (of the TGIF sitcom Perfect Strangers) becomes a crucial element of the story. These are characters (portrayed by a murderers’ row of actors at the top of their game) that matter. They draw you in. You care about their success and failure. You find yourself yelling at the television when they make the wrong choice- even though you know it was the choice they were destined to make. There’s a mystery at the center of The Leftovers, but it’s not one to be solved. Let the mystery be. It’s simply the jumping off point for exploring humanity in all its glory and darkness.

This might sound like a lot for a show to deal with. It might sound too heavy. And yes, the show’s first season is dark and lacks humor. It’s hard to get through, but push on. Get through the darkness because there’s light at the other end of the tunnel. You need the first season to understand where these characters came from. Season one takes them on the beginning of their journey to self-discovery. If you don’t see Kevin at his lowest in the first season, you won’t appreciate who he is in season three. Same with Nora. And Laurie. And Matt. Especially Matt.

But there’s a lightness to the show, too. There’s a Wu-Tang Clan tattoo. There are International Assassins. And karaoke. And a penis scanner. And, of course, there’s a Tasmanian lion sex boat conversation with “God.” Seriously. If that last part isn’t enough to get you to watch, I don’t know what is (and no, you can’t just watch that episode, you need to watch it all).

The Leftovers is an adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, made by him in conjunction with Damon Lindelof (one half of the duo behind Lost, a show that made the mistake of promising answers, while this show promises none). And the first season is pretty loyal to its source material. But seasons two and three, boy, that’s when things get really good. Mimi Leder (one of the greatest television directors of the past 30 years) joined the series in the back half of season one and gave the show its distinctive style. Leder’s touch is felt throughout the series from that moment on, and it’s a true turning point of the show. The camera work, the framing of scenes, the focus on the faces of actors as they break. The visual beauty of the show’s various vistas. It’s something to behold and cherish. And it makes the show so special.

The Leftovers is the perfect synergy of actors, writers, and directors, all working in tandem to deliver an amazing story that hits on all cylinders. Carrie Coon’s Nora, who is in the background throughout most of season one, turns into the show’s core character. It’s a testament to Coon’s amazing work, but also Lindelof’s decision to take a chance on an unknown actress (at least to those outside of the theatre community) and build the emotional arc of an entire series around her. Theroux, whose chiseled good looks and rumored endowment are fetishized throughout the series, turns out to have incredible dramatic chops and grounds the show’s more fantastical moments. I dare you not to fall for either actor, and not to root for their characters to succeed and overcome all the obstacles in their path to contentment (not happiness, because that is never the goal of this show about survival).

But ultimately, The Leftovers is a show about characters. Characters telling stories. Not just presenting stories to us, but characters telling stories to each other. About each other. Where they’ve been, where they’re going, who they were, who they want to become – or who they cannot become, despite the wants of those around them. And that’s what makes the show so damn special. It focuses on the story. The journey. The why and how aren’t the focus. It’s the who. Are there miracles? Are some people chosen for a higher purpose? Is there a reason these particular people make it through trial after trial to persevere? It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that they are here, now. Together, apart. And they have a story to tell. It’s a story of human strength in the face of adversity. Of the lies they tell themselves and each other out of fear. Of unbelievable truths. Of faith, lost and found. Of family. Of love. Of loss. Of finding one’s purpose. Of finding the person who makes life complete. And yes, it’s also a story of “God” spending time on a Tasmanian lion sex boat.

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About / Bio
TV critic based in Chicago. When not watching and writing about awesome television shows, I can be found lamenting over the latest disappointing performance by any of the various Chicago sports teams or my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Follow me @JeanHenegan on Twitter.

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