I touched upon this some in my recap over on Uproxx this morning, but the divisive reaction to last night’s episode of The Leftovers was confounding to me. I watched the screener on Saturday night, and by the end of it, I was (bleakly) pumping my first because I thought Lindelof pulled off a f**king mic drop with “Two Boats and a Helicopter.” I looked very much forward to the reaction from Twitter and critics once the episode aired, if only because I was going to feel vindicated in my love for the drama after so many had been hard on the series after only two episodes (including our own Corey Atad).
To be sure, there was a lot of enthusiasm on Twitter for the episode last night, but it wasn’t unanimous. It wasn’t even close. Even Corey was down on the episode.
completely washing my hands of The Leftovers.— Corey Atad (@CoreyAtad) July 14, 2014
Of course, the knee-jerk response I kept to myself because I love Corey was “What the fuck is wrong with you? Did you not watch the same episode of television? Goddamn Canadians!”
But you know what? Corey was not alone. Nor was I. The critics — and I’m talking about the great, recognizable ones with whom we all go to for validation — were just as split.
Here’s a sampling:
The Great Reviews
The Leftovers is serialized, but not really. Its stunning third episode, for instance, works almost as a very short feature film. Following its plot requires only the most cursory knowledge of the show’s premise. Even without that, the travails of its central character, the Rev. Matt Jamison (played by Christopher Eccleston) as a walking wound that God can’t help pouring salt into, would be so universal as to be immediately understandable to anyone. — The AV Club
Strange episode. Unexpected episode. Wholly gripping episode, with a knockout performance by Christopher Eccleston, even allowing for the wobbly American accent. I really liked the series’ first two episodes, but “Two Boats and a Helicopter” was where I began to fall for it, hard. — Sepinwall
I’ll say this first—the latter half of this episode is incredibly arresting television, even as it lurches from crazy plot twist to crazier plot twist, and is well-anchored by Eccleston’s performance. It’s impossible to watch episode three of The Leftovers, an enthralling story focused on one character that includes flashbacks, religious overtones and cryptic dream sequences, and not get heavy whiffs of Damon Lindelof’s last show, Lost. But for all that show’s baggage, it’s hard to watch “Two Boats and a Helicopter” (its name a reference to a well-known Christian parable about a devout man’s inability to recognize the work of God) and not get excited. — The Wire
“But the impression I took away from this intermittently entertaining, deeply depressing hour was that of pain for pain’s sake. The episode felt at once too leaden and too goofy, unrelentingly grim and yet filled with cinematic clichés.” — New York Times
Aiming for genuine mystery, tonight’s episode — “Two Boats and a Helicopter” — feels instead like an extended Mad-Lib. Key information is repeatedly withheld just for the sake of making people scratch their head, only to be filled in later in the most predictable way possible. It mistakes intricacy for insight, sleight-of-hand for magic. It makes you jump through a series of knee-level hoops to arrive at nowhere special at all. And because it relies so heavily on a structure that showrunner/co-creator/co-writer Damon Lindelof honed during his work on Lost, it’s a worrisome indication that perhaps he’s learned precious little since that show’s conclusion. — Rolling Stone
Our own Brian Byrd, noting that the episode had “chipped away at what little is left of his soul,” also picked up on the viewer schism.
Can't decide if this is the ep that gets people to stick with the series, or the one that causes them to cut the cord. Feels like the latter— Brian Byrd (@BrianByrdman) July 14, 2014
Look, I totally understand that reasonable minds can disagree on a lot of things. How’s that saying go? “Opinions are like assholes, and people who don’t like The Leftovers are opinions”? But I am legitimately flummoxed by the reception to the series. Where it concerns “prestige television,” there is no bigger populist on the Internet than Alan Sepinwall, and when he says he’s fallen hard for a series, I expected it to be the kind of show other people will line up to get behind.
But that’s not been the case. Obviously, three episodes in, and it’s early yet, but it feels like people are resistant. This may be a problem with the relatively recent showrunner phenomenon. Yes, showrunners are getting a lot more credit for being the voices behind a particular show, but they are also getting a lot of the blame, and audience’s perceptions of those shows are often wrapped up in how they feel about the showrunner. Consider Aaron Sorkin, who got creamed when The Newsroom came out because Sorkin is a guy that we love to beat up. He’s earnest. And smug! It’s a terrible combination: He’s both patronizing and vulnerable!
Likewise, Lena Dunham will never be able to make another show without people judging it based on Girls. On the other hand, because of Vince Gilligan, people are going to love Better Call Saul when it debuts next February, until and unless we are given a reason not to.
And that’ the difference between Damon Lindelof — whose Lost ended in a disappointing note for many — and Vince Gilligan, whose Breaking Bad ended spectacularly. Gilligan will be awesome until proven otherwise. Lindelof has been given no such benefit of the doubt. He is terrible until he proves otherwise, and for many people looking for faults in The Leftovers, they are easy to find if you’re searching for them. Unfortunately, in seeking them out, some critics and audience members are also missing what’s so great about the series: A riveting exploration of a community not trying to answer a mystery, but simply trying to process it.