Through five episodes, HBO’s The Leftovers has become a divisive television drama, and it feels like the viewers who are sticking with the show have become the minority. But we are a minority that feels invested in this show, and the attacks against it often feel personal. It makes me feel like I’m taking crazy pills because others aren’t seeing in the series what I see.
Some people have written it off because Damon Lindelof is involved, and — given what an overall series he created in Lost (the finale notwithstanding) — I think that’s silly, but I get it. Not many people have taken issue with the writing itself, but if that was the chief complaint, I wouldn’t be bothered with that, either. Some people have asserted that they don’t feel a connection to the characters. I don’t know how anyone can say that about Nora, or Reverend Matt, but OK, fine. Sure. That’s a legitimate reason, too.
But here’s the complaint — and it’s a major one — that genuinely pisses me off: It’s those that take issue with the fact that The Leftovers is too sad, that it’s too depressing, that it’s too miserable, and that it’s all so pointless.
Well, how do I put this delicately? NO SHIT, IT’S A SHOW ABOUT GRIEVING. GRIEVING IS SAD. THAT’S WHY IT’S GRIEF. If people want to dismiss the show because they think the metaphors are too on the nose, or the writing is hacky, that’s fine. But to dismiss it as misery porn is to discount the importance of grieving, and the exploration of how we each go about it.
If you think that the show is pointless, then you’re not peeling back the goddamn layers. Maybe you don’t want to peel them back, and that’s fine. Maybe it’s fucking July, and you don’t feel like exploring a heavy thematic issue. And that’s fine, too. But grieving is not pointless, and if you’d just look beyond the characters, you’d see what this show is not about the departed themselves, or why they were “raptured,” it’s about the grieving process.
We all go about our grieving in different ways, and those of us who have had major losses in our lives know what kind of grievers we are. The factions in The Leftovers represent different ends of the grieving spectrum. There’s the feds, and the government, and a lot of people on the show who don’t have much of a voice, who are hellbent on moving on. Who want to repress the loss, forget about it, and go on with their lives. This was me. This was a lot of us. This is us carrying on, because that’s what we fucking do. We refuse to deal with our emotions, and we go to class or work the next day, and we blow it off, and that grief just festers because we refuse to deal with it. We live by emotional inertia.
But that grief doesn’t go away just because we refuse to process it. And that’s what the Guilty Remnant represents: They’re the other extreme. The side that refuses to move on. The side that wallows in their misery and wants to inflict it on others. This is that person on your FB wall who lost someone close to them and reminds you of it every single day, and you feel sorry for them, but at the same time, after a year or two, you want to tell that person that she has to figure out a way to move on, because it’s been three years and it’s time, damnit.
Kevin and Jill and Aimee: They’re the people in the middle. The people are are trying to process it and move on, but they continue to be pulled back in by their past. Reverend Matt Jamison, obviously, is our coping mechanism. He’s our religion. Our beliefs. He’s the guy our heart wants to believe in, even if our brains don’t necessarily buy it. And Nora? She’s the one who has lost the most, but has seemingly figured out how to cope with it. She’s our hope. She is love.
You know, I get it, though. Some people don’t want to watch a sad show. Some people want more levity. But you know what else had very little levity in its first season? Mad Men. Also, Breaking Bad. Comic relief on both of those shows was very sparse in the first seasons, and while those other shows are among my favorite shows ever, the issues they’re dealing with aren’t half as meaningful and relatable as grief, which is something we all experience at some point in our lives (unlike meth empires, alcoholism, or womanizing). And there is a point to the sadness in The Leftovers, and it is to remind us all that loss is part of being alive, but instead of hiding it, or using it as a weapon, we should tame our sadness. We should experience it, but we should not be crippled by it.
A reader of ours named Brent M., who listened to some of the criticisms of The Leftovers on our TV podcast this week, wrote me yesterday, and I think he nailed much of what is thematically so resonant about The Leftovers.
I really don’t care about The Disappeared or why they did disappear. I care about the people who are in the title: The Leftovers. Stories that have an interesting take on people dealing with loss and tragedy will always be interesting to me. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen darker parts of this world. Maybe other people don’t like this show because they are so well adjusted in life that they shit rainbows. I don’t know.
Ultimately, this is a show about love. The one emotion that we hold dear above all others, and it is ripped away from the characters and there is nothing they can do about it. Yes, it’s about loss, but the loss only stings because of the love. These people aren’t just leftover, they are shattered. Nora (and the GR) has been the show’s example of how fucked up something like this can make people, how much it can hurt, and how we try to move past it or not.
That is the perfect summation of The Leftovers through five episodes. Don’t let the Lindelofian elements, or the sad faces, or the white shirts or the bagels obscure what’s here: The Leftovers is a show about love, and there is nothing pointless about that.