It's Time To Ask The Hard Questions On The Leftovers

Is The Leftovers truly good television? Or does it just resemble it?

I think about The Leftovers more than I should. In my last post, on "No Room At The Inn," I said I "loved" the episode. Two days after I filed the piece, I watched it again, this time with a person present. This makes a difference, and it's why I probably shouldn't watch television alone, at least not while I'm writing about it. When I'd watched "No Room At The Inn" by myself, it was a tragi-comical chain of tests and mishaps for Matt Jamison, like someone had got their Old Testament in someone else's Planes, Trains, And Automobiles. Watching it a second time, and with someone else, it came off as a little more satisfied with itself, and not a little too on-the-nose in its religious imagery. And here's the thing: my viewing companion didn't say anything, didn't react in any way that led me to this conclusion. I think it's that with someone else in the room, it's harder to avoid the fact that the thing you're watching is kinda maybe full of shit.

Let's look at it a different way. The book The Leftovers very pointedly swerved around all the things you'd expect in a story where a Rapture had taken place. It never talked about the government's response, nor about the global situation. It never really looked for answers at all. Instead, it looked at the people who were Left Behind, and how they would try and go on with their lives in a reality where Satan wasn't installing himself as head of a world government. The first season of the show, as much as it departed (no pun!) from the novel, largely held to this as well.

In moving beyond the book's story and into the second season, the producers are all about looking for answers. The season premiere was oblique, sure, but nearly every episode since has been careful to fill in as much detail as possible, even if it means reversing course and making sure we have all the backstory. There's a moment in this week's episode, "Lens," where a worried Laurie calls Nora on her cell. She's looking for Tom, and is hoping he's come to Jarden. The call lasts maybe a minute, but you know next week there'll be a whole hour on how Tom came to flee Laurie.

"Lens," more than any episode so far, is a massive info-dump. We learn why Erika buried and then exhumed a bird in the first episode. It turns out she was planning on leaving John, and the bird was a tool for her to wish for Evie to be okay without her mother. We learn that the bird was important because Erika's grandmother believed Jarden to be God's place -- "the Jarden of Eden" -- and that people have believed in its magical powers since long before October 14. We learn that Virgil is the man John Murphy "didn't try hard enough" to kill, and that he's related to Erika.

We learn that the reason the goat guy keeps walking around slaughtering goats is because he'd slaughtered one on October 14 and no one was Raptured from Jarden. Did you forget the Wedding Dress lady from "Axis Mundi"? That's okay, she's explained here, too: she was trying on her wedding dress when the Thing happened and thus feels moved to wear her dress every single day. So now you know: Jarden is basically the town from True Stories, except also spiritually charged. Aren't you glad you know? Aren't you?

As soon as Erika starts telling Nora about the birds, I muttered, "No, no, no, no." I didn't want to know WHY. Seeing her release the bird in "Axis Mundi" and then seeing her with a pile of dead ones in "Lens" is PLENTY. She believed in the power of Miracle/Jarden, and then it started to betray her. What the hell else did we need to know? And I guess that's where I see a dangerous divide in The Leftovers. Is it a show about mystery? Or is it just another mystery show?

(Unrelated, except that we're speaking of mysteries: Kevin is still in danger from the palm print on the car, because when he turned himself in for Patti's death, they fingerprinted him. So he'll be in the system somewhere, even though the girls' disappearance probably was either a Departure or somehow related to the earthquake.)

We think we want to know everything, but we don't. At some point in life, you may think to yourself, "I wonder what Willy Wonka's childhood was like..." but that does not mean someone has to go and devote a full third of a movie to explaining exactly what Willy Wonka's childhood was like. It's okay to not have the answers, and it's more than okay not to give them.

One thing I liked: the return of the Department of Sudden Departure, Nora's old gig. Because of course they'd show up in Jarden, and of course they'd want to verify whether this was an official-type, capital-D Departure. What I liked is how the science is starting to zero in on certain commonalities and flags for raptures: there's a new questionnaire the DSD is using, and it's way more focused and deliberate than the one Nora used to administer to people. All this is exactly how it would go in real life. Now all we have to do is hope the producers are able to resist saying exactly what caused the departures. Because do you really want to know? Is there an answer that isn't going to make you either shrug or throw a potted plant at your television?

And yet I'll watch, all the way to the end, because The Leftovers has all the things I look for in a television show: it's well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and it's assembled in a way that makes it feel like Good Television. But a lot of times that's what it feels like: a thing that feels like Good Television. Its characters talk and emote like real people, but I almost never believe they're doing things that real people would do. But as I said, I'll keep watching, because The Leftovers just looks and feels so right at that moment -- as long as you don't think about it too much.

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