Miranda Davis, Columbia University
I could tell you that The Leftovers is a haunting, beautiful meditation on grief and loss and living. I could tell you that it’s visually stunning. That it’s heart-pummeling and emotionally brutal but still strange and funny and an utter joy to behold.
I could reference Lost and tell you that The Leftovers is like its complex, artistic, sophisticated cousin. Or I could gush about the show’s extraordinary, televisually unparalleled use of dream sequences and surrealism.
I could make my argument for The Leftovers as the first Great American Epic of this century. I could remind you how hot Justin Theroux is. And how talented.
I could shout at you about how little the show condescends to its viewers. How complex the narrative structure is. How brilliant and subtle and completely original the stories it’s telling are. I could promise you that it’s a masterpiece, and then I could point you in the direction of any review of the show, because they all rave about it over and over again.
But I’m not going to do that, because I know it won’t make a lick of difference. Because an infinitely strange thing about the current state of TV-watching in America is that any time you suggest to someone that they watch The Leftovers, they look at you as if, given a situation where you tied them down and put the first episode on, they would choose to gnaw off a limb rather than subject themselves to what is quite possibly the greatest TV drama this country has ever seen.
It would be easy enough to ascribe this panicked reluctance to the show’s heavy subject matter. People don’t really want to watch a heart-pummeling meditation on grief week after week, you’ll say. Most people don’t like surrealism either, you’ll add. Or HBO. And while none of these arguments are wrong, they’re not completely right either. It’s true that it’s always important to remember that the majority of people still watch television primarily to be entertained, and prefer not to be confronted with heavy subjects or unpleasant emotions whilst relaxing on their canapés (this being the only possible explanation for the insane stronghold that The Big Bang Theory has over the ratings, given that it is a show without a recognizable emotion in sight). But within the world of prestige television, everything is doom and gloom and emotional violence; The Leftovers is not exceptionally dark or brutal enough to be causing this universal aversion that doesn’t afflict, say, True Detective or Mr. Robot. Its surrealism can’t be causing the aversion either, because, as we learned last time, the first season of Twin Peaks, the father of surrealist television, was a critical success, and no one ever seems put off by The Sopranos, which trafficked heavily in trippy dream sequences.
If I told you to watch The Leftovers, you would inevitably ask what it was about. I would tell you that it’s about the aftermath of a world where 2% of the global population mysteriously vanished. But unlike on Lost, or Westworld, or any show with a central enigma, that is a premise and not a mystery box. No explanations are forthcoming. Weird, magical, mystifying things happen all the time on The Leftovers, and none of it is ever explained, because the entire show is about coping with the unknown and the inexplicable, both in content and structure. What truly separates The Leftovers from almost all other shows out there right now is that it is staunchly uninterested in providing answers to the questions it poses.
It’s this disinterest in answers that makes people so disinclined towards it. From our earliest days, we’ve been taught that the serial drama is about answers. We’ve been trained by years of cliffhangers and whodunnits and will they/won’t theys to expect that when a show poses a question, it will, in due course, provide an answer. The Leftovers violates that most basic of televisual contracts: the understanding that eventually the audience will be filled in. That eventually the enigmas will unravel and we will no longer be in the spectatorial dark. This is jarring and uncomfortable in a way that heaviness or stylistic liberties aren’t, because it completely disregards what we have been taught to expect and want from serial television and conflicts with our natural human drive towards enlightenment. This is understandably off-putting.
So don’t watch The Leftovers. I’m not going to strap you down and force you to watch an episode. The show is awesome in the truest sense of the word, in that watching it is a deeply personal, spiritual experience. I have no vested interest in your spiritual growth. I’m not going to proselytize. If you’re not ready to feel frustrated and uncomfortable in exchange for a televisual journey that is magnificent and breathtaking, that’s certainly your prerogative.