Well, it’s certainly not HBO’s next True Detective.
Heading into this summer, TV critics and prognosticators were heavily anticipating the cable network’s new prestige drama series, The Leftovers, and for several legitimate reasons. One, it’s the polarizing Damon Lindelof’s first big TV project after the still-debated-over series finale of ABC’s Lost, which he co-ran with Carlton Cuse. Two, it’s based on the best-selling novel by acclaimed fiction author Tom Perrotta, who’s also known for writing the books that led to the films Election and Little Children; and, lastly, continuing television’s recent streak of attracting top-shelf movie talent, The Leftovers stars revered talents like David Lynch favorite Justin Theroux, British character actor Christopher Eccleston (28 Days Later, Thor: The Dark World), Amy Brenneman (Heat), and Ann Dowd (so great in the 2012 indie Compliance).
Giving The Leftovers its strongest intrigue, however, was its premise: In what’s possibly the Rapture, 2% of the world’s population disappears one day, and the show picks up three years after that event in a small Upstate New York town. There’s an all-white-everything cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members smoke endless cigarettes, forbid talking, and maraud around town creepily staring at people; police chief Kevin Garvey (Theroux), a perpetually going-through-it scowler with an emo teenage daughter (Margaret Qualley) and multiple other chips on his shoulders; and an unseen, fate-guiding force that might be supernatural, or biblical, or totally inconsequential and a way for Lindelof to once again infuriate TV watchers.
Strangely, though, The Leftovers hasn’t inspired widespread anger, nor the kind of critical fawning usually associated with highbrow HBO programs. For the most part, it’s been met with indifference. HBO has yet to confirm a second season, and the Sunday night Twitter masses largely check out once its lead-in, True Blood, ends for the evening.
Is The Leftovers better than its minimal fanfare implies? Or do the people who’ve ignored it have the right idea? Now that the show has reached the halfway point of its 10-episode run, it’s as good a time as any to evaluate The Leftovers. Here, Complex deputy editor Ross Scarano, senior staff writer Matt Barone, and news editor Nathan Reese discuss the good, the bad, and the “FOH, plastic Baby Jesus metaphors.”
Ross Scarano: Let me be the first to say that I can't believe I've made it five episodes into this show. But now that I’m halfway, I guess I'll finish. Especially given all the yacht rock in episode five. Michael McDonald and Hall & Oates in the same episode. That's strong.
Nathan Reese: Amen to that. But how much do you suppose that is because this is a tentpole HBO show, and how much of it is based on the show's own merits? And to that effect, should we really be, five episodes in, asking questions like, “Is this worth it?"
Ross: Despite this being a tentpole HBO show, the conversation around it has been somewhere above crickets in the last week. One of the things that keeps you locked into the tentpole HBO experience is the sense of conversation, right? This hasn't been delivering in that department.
Matt Barone: For me, sticking around is definitely based on the show's merits, which I do think exist. I like all of the performances, even when the writing isn't doing the actor any favors (like with Justin Theroux's daughter, who's not exactly Dana Brody status but certainly needs to lighten up a bit); I love the intermittent moments of the possibly-supernatural, or of the higher powers, like Theroux and the dogs and Christopher Eccleston's priest and those pigeons in the third episode. That's the kind of storytelling I've always loved, and, at its best, The Leftovers frequently delivers that. Also, I'm an outspoken lover of that third episode: it's, in my eyes, the best TV episode of the year all-around, one I'll be able to revisit as its own standalone hour and always appreciate. It made me want to fully invest in the show's whole season.
But, man, did that fourth episode suck. That honestly gave me reservations about the show I didn't have beforehand; I'd been enthusiastically pro-Leftovers while others panned it, but that fourth episode represents the worst of Damon Lindelof's sensibilities and makes me worry that third episode was the show's peak moment.
I’ve wondered if the show would be at its best whenever it gave characters bottle episodes, but having seen next Sunday's episode (which I won't say anything detailed about here), I know that's the case. The sixth one is another one-character episode and it's not all that great.
Nathan: Let’s talk about the balance between the supernatural and the more character-driven stuff. Do you think it’s towing the line adequately? The creators have been pretty clear that they don’t care for resolution, but there’s clearly a supernatural thriller element goign on beneath the surface. I may be on my own here, but mystical animals in and of themselves are not a strong selling point for me. And now, by the fifth episode, they’ve introduced this conspiracy thriller element to the show. It seems like a lot to juggle, for a show whose pace is lugubrious to say the least. I guess I'm just worried that nothing is going anywhere, and the elements that ARE in place don't work together with much coherency.
Ross: We really don't know much at this point, and yes, they have tons of balls in the air, including that big one about the dude who digs statutory rape and asian women. Which is a pretty big ball to only occasionally bat around. And now we have a potential government conspiracy.
Matt: It's a mess, really. It's such a frustrating show, especially since I do love things about it, but the further I step away from it, the more I notice its many faults. One being the storyline with Theroux's son and that statutory-rape cult leader.
Nathan: I'm a Lost apologist to the core, but does this not feel a lot like parts of Lost that were so frustrating for so many people? If Lindelof really is committed to not telling us why the disappearance happened (which seems to be the case) why should we assume he'll solve the other mysteries he's introduced? And if he doesn't care to solve them, are these mysteries without resolution interesting enough to keep us watching? I'm with Ross in that I'll finish the season just out of momentum, but I'm not sure they are.
Matt: I think this show proves that Lost's problem areas came from Lindelof, not Carlton Cuse. If you watch Bates Motel and The Strain, both of which are Cuse shows, they're so much more fun, lighter, and nail the genre elements. The Leftovers definitely taps into Lost's worst impulses.
Ross: It's interesting in that I really have no feelings about why everyone disappeared. I'm willing to take that at face value, especially because the show doesn't appear to be interested in going near that subject. Which is fine. But the other elements aren't working. I dislike almost every formal decision the show makes, from the editing to the score to the camera work.
Nathan: Can we agree that the sound mixing on this show is THE WORST. I don't need loud noises to tell me when to react to something.
Ross: Ugh, it's so boring. Just in case you didn't get the message, let's do a smash cut to trauma and jack the volume up to 11 SO YOU HEAR THE PAIN. Do we have your attention now?
Nathan: But I definitely agree the show is failing largely because of tone. Personally, I’d be so much more forgiving if this were lighter or funnier, but I’m just not particularly interested in these feeling so grief that Lindelof wants us to wallow in. What am I supposed to be getting from this? I honestly don’t know.
Matt: See, one of the reasons why I've been so apologetic towards The Leftovers is because I dig its overall tone, down to its score and formal components. Not the sound mixing or random jump-cuts, but the score itself and the (for me, at least) at times haunting vibe. It reminds me a lot of the great French series The Returned, which has a similar feel to it. Granted, The Returned crushes this show in every single department, but there are traces of that show in The Leftovers that I've been responding to it.
Ross: I've really come to despise the constantly crescendo-ing piano and violin runs.
Nathan: Just an aside, but I think last night's episode had the show's first laugh-out-loud joke: "I say fuck, too.”
Ross: How one-note can this be? Lindelof has made a world that disappeared humor. That's worse than disappearing two percent of the population, to be honest. There's a joke in the first episode, sort of, where a man on the radio describes losing his wife (?) at a Pickle Barrel, or something. It was a joke to me, at least.
Matt: And don't forget the news report with Gary Busey, Shaq, and others. That's definitely a sight gag.
Nathan: OK, so there have been, like, six jokes.
Ross: Yeah, that was a stab in the right direction. But also felt weirdly close to the death of Lebron James joke in this season of Louie, which also unfolds on cable news.
Matt: I don't think shows like this need to have jokes; they do, though, need to give their characters moments to breathe, and maybe even crack a smile. It can be a conversation that's not inherently funny to viewers but makes them smile. Up until now, aside from those twins, The Leftovers hasn't had any of that.
Nathan: But regarding the fifth episode, it's true—it has lightened up a tiny bit. I was ready to leave the series completely, but five (and six, which you readers haven't yet seen) were probably my two favorite episodes. I think it's moving in the right direction, just very slowly.
Matt, since you're the most into the show, what aspect of it do you think works best? I like the bigger world implications, the conspiracy stuff, the possibility that the metaphysical stuff might actually go somewhere (even though I'm not sure it will). I'm basically watching The Leftovers trying to shape it into the show I wish it was, which may be the most frustrating way possible to watch a show.
Matt: Whatever works about the show, to me, extends from the fact that I do like a lot of the characters. I like Kevin Garvey; I really like the priest, and I'm fascinated by Nora. The whole concept of the Guilty Remnant is interesting to me, and now that the townsfolk might strike back against them, as seen by last night's genuinely horrific opening sequence and what it could inspire; I'm curious to see the town's implosion caused by the Remnant.
Nathan: Is that how you interpreted that? It seemed that the lynching was set up by the government as a reason to get the feds called in. I think it's part of the bigger conspiracy arc they've introduced.
Matt: Right, but will the people in the town think that? Or will they turn against each other now?
Ross: I like that the FBI agent mentions another cult on the phone. It gives you a sense of the scope of this situation that the show tends to keep us blind to.
Nathan: Yeah, the agent suggests that they can just go in and wipe everyone out. The body is sent to a holding facility with a ton of other bodies—presumably bodies that came from similar situations. My guess is that the government had her stoned to make it look like the town did it so they would have justification to go in and wipe out the cult like they did to the ranch. The larger birds-eye view stuff is actually pretty compelling to me, now that the ball has started rolling in that direction. In some ways it's sort of the opposite of Game of Thrones for me, where the fantasy stuff is way less interesting than what happens at King's Landing. I'm all for the more dystopian elements, but I'm not particularly interested in the individual characters, with the exception of Nora who has quietly become the only person I'm really rooting for at this point.
Ross: Yeah, I'm not crazy about any of the individual characters. Theroux's fine, I guess, as a kind of glam-dad-cop. (It does look like he's always wearing eye-shadow, right?) But they give him such lousy dialogue. He just swears and sputters. They gave him language but only told him how to curse, or whatever that line from The Tempest is: “You taught me language; and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse."
Nathan: In closing, how about we do a “yay” or “nay” on whether people should keep watching.
Ross: I'm voting "Nay." Go watch Masters of Sex instead. Or watch old episodes of Mad Men. Or spend time with your family, lest they disappear forever.
Matt: It's a "Yay" for me. Any show that can elicit this kind of debate and analysis, and can also produce an episode like Christopher Eccleston's amazing hour of reckoning, deserves at least one season's worth of your time. Its sporadic moments of excellent (for me) intrigue, and its ability to knock the wind out of me (episode three; how brutal and painful and unflinching the stoning was last night), make me unable to dismiss it just yet.
Nathan: Five episodes in is pretty deep to be so conflicted about a show. If I didn’t write about pop culture for a living, I’d honestly have given up by now. That said, there are still some intriguing aspects to the show and next week’s episode is, in my opinion, one of the season’s best. Rather than "Yay" or "Nay," I'm goig with a solid “¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”