No one needs to tell you that television is good these days. Rather, I find myself needing someone to tell me what is or isn’t worth my time. We are fortunate to see this phenomenon repeated in contemporary literature, although I often find myself having to choose which form I have time for in a given day. Here, I want to talk about an intersection between the two.
Because there is so much out there in terms of thoughtful entertainment these days, you do need to know what you are getting in to with a show like The Leftovers. This is a show that requires a high level of engagement and thought. You cannot clean the house or write a paper or joke with a friend while this show is on. You also shouldn’t binge watch it, as it takes an emotional and intellectual toll with each episode. But now that you’re forewarned that you will need to devote a good hour of brains to watching it, let me tell you why you should.
The premise is simple: on October 14, all of a sudden, 2% of the world’s population vanished without a trace. There is no explanation for this, although every level of society, government, and religion have sought one. The show does not try to find one itself, nor does it focus on the people trying to. Nor should you, for that matter. This show is not about answering that, or many other, questions. As Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker asserts, the show is really about grief and loss. And, more concretely, the show is about what it means to be left behind in a world that has become unrecognizable.
One of my favorite characters is Matt Jamison, a minister in the small town of Mapleton. To be a Christian minister in a post-Rapture-esque world is to be trying to provide comfort to a world that has been denied Biblical heaven. You either respond to that with despair, or by aggressively asserting that what has happened is not in fact The Rapture. He chooses the latter, spending much of the first season with the twin goals of bringing members of a despair-focused cult into a different fold and telling everyone that those taken on October 14 were not more worthy of heaven than those left behind. Both goals are motivated by the same desire: to assert that humanity, with all its ugliness, is worth holding on to. But to do this he has to dig into the often sordid humanity of each Rapture victim, or Departure in the show’s lexicon. He prints fliers about these people asserting their deeply flawed backgrounds, constantly confronting the question of whether it is better to reveal that someone’s lost loved one was a pedophile or a con man or unfaithful, or to allow people to believe that they were left behind because they were less worthy. One of the best episodes of the whole show, “No Room at the Inn” is about testing his faith in that humanity and about the extraordinary depth of potential responses we have to the ugliness around us. If you are looking to get a glimpse of the potential of the show, just watch that one.
At Boston Book Festival this past year I eavesdropped on a panel discussion on the process of bringing a book to the screen, whether small or large. The panel featured, among others, Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel. The main difference between his novel and the show, he asserted, was the level of dark humor allowed in each. The book is darker, and perhaps more funny, but the show has something that I feel the book struggled to incorporate: real hope about humanity. The novel is an enclosed space, functioning in this instance sort of like a long-form short story. There is an interiority that the novel can provide that a visual medium often has trouble conveying, and the finely drawn portraits in The Leftovers privilege the humanity Perrotta struggles to assert hope for. The show, however, has an advantage in that it can dedicate a whole hour to a character like Matt Jamison, a character merely sketched in the novel. Many people consider season two of the show to be one of the best seasons of television out there. I agree with that assertion wholeheartedly, although I do really love the first season as well. Season three is coming out in a few months so it is just the right time to get caught up on this weird, experimental, deeply ambitious show. Let me know how you find it.