This week, Complex Pop Culture staffers will write about the one pop culture event of 2014 that let them down the most, because we're all Grinches. Today, news editor Nathan Reese and resident Lost apologist explains why the The Leftovers was the year's biggest bummer on more than one level.
Nobody wanted The Leftovers to fail. Fans of Tom Perrotta's novel were excited to see it realized as an ongoing series. Prestige television watchers (a.k.a. pretty much everyone these days) were stoked for a new HBO drama. And Lost fans—from the apologists to the haters—hoped that Damon Lindelof would prove more than a one trick polar bear. The Leftovers was primed with an immense amount of goodwill, quite possibly more than it deserved. That it managed to squander it all so quickly wasn't just a bummer for fans—it was one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Of the types of people who were most excited about The Leftovers, I fell into the second two categories: TV obsessive and Lost fanboy. (I don't know a thing about Perrotta's book, sadly.) Though Lost's final season was a disappointment, it wasn't nearly as bad as people made it out to be, and the previous seasons were some of the most enjoyable television I've ever watched, and nothing can change that. (The pernicious myth that Lindelof did what he said wouldn't and made everyone "dead the whole time" is weirdly persistent, but untrue; the "flash sideways" purgatory is only in the final season and the characters were very much alive for the rest of the series. But I digress.) So when I approached The Leftovers I wasn't a skeptic wondering if Lindelof could make a great show—I knew that he could because he'd already made one.
The premise behind The Leftovers is solid: 2% of the world's population—poof!—vanishes into thin air. Is it the Rapture? Is it an interdimensional anomaly? Nobody knows. There's a mystery to be solved, human drama to be mined, and literally an entire world to check in on; the possibilities are infinite. But from the beginning, before a single episode aired, Lindelof insisted that this was a show about how people reacted to this phenomenon and not an investigation into why it happened. While that wasn't exactly true (he does show interest in giving us a resolution), his approach made sense. Lindelof openly disliked the Lost fans who nitpicked the show's internal logic, so of course he wouldn't want to repeat the same scenario. The problem was that he wrote characters with emotions that were nearly impossible to identify with.
Lost, for all its endless treks across the island, was relatively light on its feet. The Leftovers, however, was a slog. Even though the show takes place years after the initial event, the world remains so dour, so full of grief that you'd have assumed 50% of the population had vanished—not 2%. I get that people would be broken up if a loved one or a friend vanished from the face of the planet. But I'm being totally serious here when I say that I've been to funerals with more jokes than the entirety of The Leftovers. (If you count the celebrities who were departed part, there are, like, four total.)
On his Hollywood Prospectus podcast, Grantland's Chris Ryan spitballed about the comic possibilities of having a creditor or rival football QB rubbed out of existence. Another version of the show would've run with that stuff. And not to make this entirely about Lost, but levity was often that show's greatest weapon. From Hurley to Miles to Sawyer, the show always made sure to stack jokes on top of the bodies. Who cares what the Guilty Remnant is up to when you're watching the first fifteen seconds of an Abilify ad drawn out over ten hours? Apparently Cuse was the funny one.
There are more problems with The Leftovers than the lugubrious pacing and chronically-depressed cast. I could go on about the show's exploitative violence ("Gladys"), its absurd flashback episode ("The Garveys At Their Best"), or borderline racist portrayal of minorities ("Gladys" again), but why belabor the point?
Instead, it's the few things I enjoyed about the show that makes it my biggest disappointment of the year. Take "Guest," a truly great television episode and the best of the season. Nora Durst, played by a phenomenal Carrie Coon, is allowed an hour almost entirely to herself, and it's full of just the sort of dark comedy that the show is usually lacking. The party scene where Coon straddles the eerily real-looking double is macabre, gross, and hilarious. And then there's "Two Boats and a Helicopter," a tragedy centered on Reverend Matt Jamison (the great Christopher Eccleston) that is truly harrowing, if a bit heavy-handed. But those two promising blips only made it clear how unsuccessful the rest of the show was by comparison. For a moment, we got to see how the absurdity of the world's situation was more than a bleak pool of despair and dread.
But all is not lost. It's heartening to hear that The Leftovers is changing up its format for next season by switching out characters and possibly moving the setting. When I learned that The Leftovers was being renewed, I was, frankly, pretty surprised. But considering the glimpses of what The Leftovers could have been, it'll be fascinating to see if it can still be that show in the future.