Under the Radar: The Leftovers
Outside the (Mystery) Box
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers is a television series that ran on HBO from 2014 to 2017 for three seasons. Even though critically acclaimed with a devoted fanbase, The Leftovers often took a backseat to HBO's other prestige dramas. Today, we're taking a closer look at this remarkable show almost two years after its stunning series finale. Sprawling, often baffling, and supremely confident, The Leftovers is one of the weirdest shows you'll ever see - and also one of the best. Major spoilers for The Leftovers below...
In the era of peak television, no narrative concept has been more misused and abused than J.J. Abrams' "Mystery Box" idea. The term originates from a 2008 TED Talk given by Abrams, where he relays the story of how his grandfather gifted him a box of magic tricks when he was a child - a box that he never opened because of his belief that whatever his imagination could conjure up would always trump the actual contents of that box. 2008 was also peak Lost, a show created by Abrams and run by Damon Lindelof (co-creator of The Leftovers) and Carlton Cuse. And for five magnificent seasons, Lost was the paragon of "Mystery Box" storytelling not because of the strength of the mythology or enigmas, but because of its incredible cast and writing: the mysteries were what got people through the door; the complicated, real, and utterly captivating characters were what got people to stay. With the success of Lost also came a deluge of lookalike shows that completely misunderstood the "Mystery Box" formula. Pale imitators such as The Event, Flashforward, and Touch rushed onto airwaves only to be canceled a season later. Why? Because showrunners prioritized the narrative hook over the development of characters, resulting in shows that felt both anemic and constipated, and with audiences clamoring for answers rather than a good story. Unfortunately, in the same vein as many of its failed doppelgängers, Lost's own "Mystery Box" collapsed in upon itself with a widely derided sixth and final season. Even the characters that the audience had grown to deeply love and loathe for six years couldn't save the show when it became a mad rush to answer a critical mass of unanswered, and ultimately unanswerable, questions. Accusations were slung that Lindelof and Cuse were flying by the seat of their pants and making things up as they went, and that they never had any intention of wrapping up the countless loose ends the show had generated over the course of six seasons. The truth of these accusations is subject to debate, but what happened to the quality of Lost in its final season is not (I will, however, be a Lost apologist until my dying day).
Damon Lindelof is one of the most self-aware and self-effacing guys in show business. Up until the day he quit Twitter in 2013, his Twitter bio read: "I'm one of the idiots behind Lost." After a brief stint writing big budget movies (Prometheus, Star Trek, World War Z), Lindelof courageously returned to the medium that haunted him years prior in the Lost writers' room in the form of The Leftovers for HBO. Based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta (who himself would be integral as a part of the show's production and creative team), The Leftovers primarily deals with the aftermath of a mysterious Rapture-like event known as The Sudden Departure, wherein 2% of the entire world's population vanishes without a trace. The veneer of the series is a "Mystery Box" show to a T, with all the tropes of the genre on full display: a world shattering and inexplicable event, an ensemble cast, conspiratorial undertones, and extended flashbacks. In 2014, one could easily be baffled by Lindelof's decision to helm a show so thematically similar to Lost, in what must have seemed like the television world's most public self-flagellation. Today, however, almost two years after the series finale, that decision is now crystal clear in that for Lindelof, The Leftovers was not an exercise in masochism, but redemption.
"Underneath all the mysteries and mythology, The Leftovers is just a simple show about processing grief and finding purpose after tragedy."
The story of The Leftovers focuses on the Garveys, an upper class family in the fictional suburb of Mapleton, New York. The first season details the struggles of Kevin (Justin Theroux), the family patriarch and the town's chief of police, and those in his orbit as they grapple with the reality of a post-Departure world. Opening three years after The Sudden Departure, it's revealed that his wife and mother to his two rebellious children, Laurie (silent powerhouse Amy Brenneman), has left the family to join the Guilty Remnant - a mysterious cult that encourages chain-smoking and has its members take a vow of silence. Other figures in the town include Guilty Remnant sect leader Patti Levin (an arresting Ann Dowd), beleaguered preacher Matthew Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), and his sister Nora Durst (Carrie Coon in a star-making turn) who anomalously lost her husband and both of her two children in The Departure. On the periphery of the story is also Kevin Garvey, Sr., Kevin’s father and former chief of police who has been institutionalized for hearing voices after The Departure.
The Leftovers is a show that progresses with supreme confidence. It is a show about Rickrolling ghosts, sacred lion boat orgies, afterlife assassins, and Paleolithic flashbacks, but at the same time it is about none of those things. Underneath all the mysteries and mythology, The Leftovers is just a simple show about processing grief and finding purpose after tragedy. Damon Lindelof is a troll in the best sense of the word, and along with Tom Perrotta and the rest of the writing team, it seems that all he does is taunt viewers and Lost-haters with outlandish concept after outlandish concept, but the characters and maelstrom of emotions are so strong that all the trademark weirdness gets swept aside and you can't help but be awestruck by the character work that unfolds onscreen. Traditional "holy shit" watercooler moments are a dime a dozen on The Leftovers, but as the very best version of a "Mystery Box" show, its quieter moments are the ones that stick with you. Oftentimes the most powerful and emotionally resonant scenes are simply of two characters having a conversation - and those scenes usually involve Carrie Coon's incredible portrayal of the tragic and damaged Nora Durst. One particular scene (below) in the show's second season has Nora confronting her new next door neighbor Erika Murphy (Regina King) about the nature of her daughter's disappearance. The scene is nearly ten minutes long, neither woman raises her voice, and the dialogue is a simple dynamic - but the powder keg nature of the conversation is palpable and electric. The tension is conveyed through two restrained yet powerful performances as a cauldron of resentment bubbling right beneath the surface without it ever devolving into a screaming match, and it makes for thrilling television. This perfect marriage of acting and screenwriting is one of The Leftovers' greatest assets, and it carries the show across three incredible seasons without ever letting the mysteries take the driver's seat. There is a reason that the song that plays over the opening credits from the second season onward is the catchy Iris DeMent tune: "Let the Mystery Be".
Nora and the Garvey clan make up a large portion of the ensemble cast, with some of the most tremendous acting you'll see on the small screen. Before coming into The Leftovers, I was more familiar with Justin Theroux through his writing credits and comedic chops (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2) than his dramatic acting, but as Kevin Garvey, he carries the show on his back with the perfect mixture of sardonicism, intensity, and repressed tenderness. And as stated before, there cannot be enough praise heaped upon Carrie Coon's captivating turn as Nora Durst. I obviously have no idea what it's like to have everyone I love disappear and not have an inkling of what happened, but whatever Carrie Coon is selling, I'm buying. Coon plays the character as a lost and damaged force of nature, completely upending the Hollywood stereotype of a grief-stricken woman in a role that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. The rest of the characters are no slouches either, and it’s a testament to the strength of the cast that the rotating character-centric episode format doesn’t get frustrating in the face of so many cliffhangers.
Never interested in a sedentary narrative, The Leftovers habitually capsizes its status quo with the start of each new season by detonating the show’s horizons in bigger and weirder ways. If the first season of The Leftovers, which adapts Tom Perrotta’s novel in full, is a looming darkness and uncertainty threatening to swallow everything whole, its second and third seasons are a beacon of hope and human connection. The second season boldly leaves the Perrotta blueprint behind, and sees Kevin and the gang transplanted to the fictional Miracle, Texas, a town oddly untouched by The Sudden Departure. It’s here that the show truly opens up; with the addition of the now Oscar-winning Regina King and Kevin Carroll, the narrative simultaneously amps up the bizarre while deepening its exploration on the themes of love, loss, and faith. By the time The Leftover’s third season rolls around, it becomes evident that while answers and true happiness will always remain elusive, especially in the face of a world-shattering event, closure and peace are always within reach even when it’s impossible to make sense of everything.
“It’s hard to talk about The Leftovers without bringing up “The Book of Nora,” the series finale to end all series finales. Sublime in its bittersweetness and profundity, the episode earns the series its place in television canon as a labor of love.”
It’s hard to talk about The Leftovers without bringing up “The Book of Nora,” the series finale to end all series finales. Sublime in its bittersweetness and profundity, the episode earns the series its place in television canon as a labor of love. Focusing on the lynchpin of the entire series, Nora Durst, “The Book of Norah” is a flawless finale that will be talked about long after its airing, in the pantheon of series-ending greats such as The Shield, The Americans, and M.A.S.H. After a cataclysmic breakup with Kevin in the beginning of the third season, and consumed by her obsession with the rapture that claimed her family, Nora discovers a scientist group purporting to know the explanation behind The Sudden Departure. And shockingly, in the scientists’ possession, is a machine that allegedly sends its occupants to the place where the 2% disappeared. The start of the episode has Nora bidding a tearful goodbye to her terminally ill brother, Matt, before stepping naked into the machine. Nora lets out an unintelligible scream as the episode cuts to black.
“The Book of Nora” saw countless iterations in the writers room, with the chief debate being whether the finale would show what happened to the 2% that vanished without a trace. Earlier on in the show’s run, Damon Lindelof and the writing team, including author Tom Perrotta, decided that the explanation for The Sudden Departure would be simple: a mirror world that lost 98% of its population, an Occam’s Razor staring us right in our faces. Whether this world would ever actually be revealed or seen, however, was another question altogether. Lindelof, who couldn’t resist offering at least a glimpse of an explanation, voted for a visit to the other world in the series finale. Perrotta, who had always railed against any explanation in fear of undermining the story’s themes, voted with a hard no. Instead, a brilliant compromise was brokered by writer Patrick Somerville: Nora would tell the story of her visit to the other world to Kevin over a cup of tea years in the future - whether the story is true or not, would be up to the audience. This simple idea would germinate into this following scene:
The final episode of what could be considered a science fiction show has no big action setpiece; it has no high-stakes showdown, no adrenaline-pumping thrills, and no neat conclusion. Instead, we have a single, tearful reunion and a quiet conversation as the climax - and that quiet conversation is as bracing and devastating as anything I’ve ever seen on the small screen. Nora’s monologue is a tour-de-force, with director Mimi Leder’s masterful work behind the camera reinforcing the human connection, resisting the urge to cut away, and intently focusing on the story being told. “The Book of Nora” perfectly encapsulates The Leftovers: grand and esoteric in scope, intimate and personal at its core. Nora Durst fears that her insane story can’t possibly be believed, and Kevin Garvey responds in perfect Leftovers-fashion: “Of course I believe you. You’re here.”
As evidenced by its storied but forgotten graveyard, the “Mystery Box” is a dangerous tightrope that favors lofty concepts but shoddy executions - a seemingly no-win game of oneupmanship that too-often leaves characters as a casualty. The Leftovers is a rare example of the perfect “Mystery Box” show, a show that found its indelible footing from the foibles and final-season missteps of another. Damon Lindelof’s second try at a television show teaches us to discard the what, where, how, and why, and instead delve into the who. In the now-famous words of Iris DeMent: just let the mystery be. We’re all better for it.