Review: The Leftovers

Kristen Field

Do you want to experience a series that tackles topics as big as the meaning of life and still feels as small as the glass of juice you spilt last week? Do you want to watch Amy Brenneman spend an entire season of this series saying absolutely nothing, all the while breaking your heart and conveying more than ten million lines of dialogue could capture? Do you want to know what a science fiction narrative that focuses on the unbearable, wondrously human looks like? If you do, I have a proposition for you.

There is a series - it’s over now, so binge-watching the entire thing is an option - that is based on a book (which, full disclosure, I have not read - but I’m sure it’s marvellous) that explores what might go down if two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanished without a trace, all at once. And while the immediate reaction, inevitably, is to wonder where these individuals went, the story very quickly veers into the much more corporeal struggle of how those remaining in the dark manage to go on - after losing young children, spouses, parents, unborn foetuses, or - conversely - losing no one at all.

One might not expect losing nothing to be a traumatic experience, but that is part of the beauty of this story - it delves unflinchingly into the pain total adversaries can feel, all the while believing each other to be the luckiest people on the planet. It challenges us to consider the possibility that pain can be collective, while also insisting that some pain is so unique and so consuming that no one else will ever be able to understand it - and that we have to live with that sense of loneliness. Or give up - which is always an option, but the consequences of that choice - because it is a choice - are unpacked just as delicately by this revelatory series.

It’s difficult to write about this show without ruining the experience of watching it for the first time - this new world of traumatic spoilers zooming around inescapably has dramatically shifted the way we share stories we love and connect to with each other, but what can you do? What I can say, I think, is that this series moves with stunning agility from one narrative to the next, from one character to ten others without missing a beat or losing its audience for one second. Some of them are connected to each other, but others aren’t - and I think this is a testament to the strength of this storytelling: these writers (including Kath Lingenfelter, who’s written for Westworld, House, and Pushing Daisies) know their world and their themes well enough to jump into the deep end, so to speak, of television: spending whole episodes in a surreal purgatory scored by classical orchestral music, beginning their second season with an entirely new family of characters in an entirely new town, and transforming apparent villains into broken heroes - and vice versa.

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the final episode of The Leftovers aired that he thought the show was, at its core, an insightful and unflinching portrayal of what it means to be in a relationship - and I wouldn’t argue that assessment at all. But also, I think, the show unpacks what it means to go through this world alone - even if you connect, briefly or inexorably, with a kindred spirit - or a spirit that sees nothing of the world as you see it. The show, to me, explores not only what it means to learn to live alongside another human being, flaws and all, but also what it means to learn to live with yourself. And, quite honestly, I cannot think of a more beautiful story to tell - or more insightful, fearless actors to tell that story.

Carrie Coon (who’s recently entered the spotlight with her new role on this season of Fargo) plays shattered strength like she was born to do so. Amy Brenneman (who I mentioned before) gives a stealth performance, throughout all three seasons, as a woman who’s lost her faith in her ability to help others. Christopher Eccleston plays the most captivating deranged priest, hanging on to his faith with every fibre of his being, that I’ve ever seen on television, on film, or in the theatre. And Regina King, who appears in the second season of the show, captures the desperation of a mother who needs to believe in miracles but can’t with incredible, heart-wrenching nuance. They defy every expectation and craft a fictional world more delicate and vibrant than one can describe.

In short, this is a series worth watching, and I hope you’re able to see past this gushing review (that doesn’t capture an iota of the show’s splendour) and take a chance on a narrative that dared not to conform to the rules of television (and what executives believe audiences want to watch) today.

Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.