Let’s not mince words here: The Leftovers is the best show on television in 2017. It’s the best show right now, and it’ll most likely be the best show by the time the year’s over.
Before getting into why, let’s get into what “best” means quickly, since this trips people up so completely that I’m sure many of you have already scrambled to the comments to refute this claim. I don’t make it lightly, but I also don’t make it seriously. What I mean by that is buried just below any written claim that any particular piece of art is the “best” is the reality that it’s just the writer’s personal favorite. That shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say, nor does it refute the connotative power of the word “best.”
What it does mean, however, is that you as a reader don’t have to assume there’s some subjective list that you should feel the need to create in order to disprove the statement that led this review. If you don’t think it’s correct, that’s fine! If you want to hold out hope something you haven’t seen will supplant it, that’s fine too! I use the phrase “best” not to intentionally rattle cages, but rather because I think it’s always been meant in this sense, and it’s less important for you to come away agreeing with me so much as understanding why I make the claim in the first place. It’s all about me, you see, but it’s also all about all of us understanding there can be different points of view without everything dissolving into a cataclysmic shouting match. Hearing each other = understanding each other. That’s different, and ultimately more important, than agreeing with each other.
And not coincidentally, that’s exactly what the final season of The Leftovers is about.
Even hinting a single thing about what unfolds this year (HBO sent out all but the series finale, and I watched them all) will do a disservice to those who want to experience it themselves. What I can do is describe in very general terms why this show affected me so much.
1) Damon Lindelof knows how to make a goddamn episode of television.
Recently, I bemoaned the latest example of a showrunner likening a TV show to a movie, and how I thought that violated both genres and did them wrong. I’m not here to bring up that topic again, except to say that because I think each episode of TV show should work unto itself while contributing to the larger shape of the season, I love how each of the seven episodes was a moving experience unto itself. To use an semi-obscure comparison: the last season of The Leftovers is like the Enlightened episode “The Ghost Is Seen,” with each episode diving deeply and intimately into (usually) a single character’s experience. Because Lindelof knows the story he and Tom Perrotta are trying to tell, and because he’s got a tremendous amount of experience in crafting television at this point, he can afford to be patient and disciplined with his storytelling. Things that seem like detours end up arriving at precisely the point they need do without sacrificing any plot momentum or character work. It all works like a gorgeous doomsday clock.
2) The show explores heavy themes without being torture porn.
Full confession time: I hated the first season of this show. (Cue some rushing to the comments to declare my current love invalid, because of reasons.) I didn’t dig The Guilty Remnant, and thought the relentlessness of the characters’ pain was just too much. The show didn’t seem like it was about getting past that grief so much as wallowing in it. Mileage may vary, of course, but that’s how I felt at the time. I turned around fairly quickly in season two with the introduction of a new location/characters, a de-emphasis on the silent cult that suffused the first season, and a newfound exploration of hope that shifted the conversation from, “This is all there is,” to, “What if there could be more?”
Season three takes all the improvements in season two and continues them, with hard-earned victories sitting aside quiet tragedies to produce a kaleidoscope of experience. To be sure, I don’t mind watch a show in which horrible things happen, so long as that’s not the sole thing that happens. A show in which nothing goes wrong is as inaccurate as a show in which everything consistently goes to shit. I’m equally disinterested in both when it comes to scripted TV.
3) It’s sneaky funny.
You probably wouldn’t know it by all the attempts I make at making reviews about television sound like a grad school term paper, but I like to laugh! I’d like to think I have a sense of humor. And The Leftovers is often a funny, funny show. It’s one of the things that actually deepens the tragedy, because it rounds out the experiences depicted onscreen. The humor can some from a surprising joke made by a character, an absolutely absurd prop placed prominently into frame, or consistently marvelous musical cues that simultaneously undercut and ennoble the actions onscreen.
Unlike the musical cues on a show like Westworld, which are designed to inspire Reddit threads, these cues inspire genuine emotion. If they are familiar, they are familiar in order to evoke an emotional response based on our built-in relationship with those songs. When combined with the show’s haunting piano-based leitmotif, they provide an expansive aural canvas that matches the visual and narrative ones within the show.
It’s not original in any way, shape or form to say that the best dramas are often the best comedies. But it’s so hard to get either one right that for a show to excel at being both is just fantastic.
4) The show is more interested in asking questions than providing answers.
Were this Sherlock, that would be a terrible quality. But I’d argue that while this is a show about people wrestling with The Departed, as a show it’s not particularly interested in answering what The Departure truly was. In Lost, Lindelof answered a lot of mysteries that really didn’t require any solutions, because no matter how clever they might have been, they were still inherently reductive. An answer can be satisfying in certain cases, because then it can be that and only that. But while that’s helpful in a murder trial, it’s less useful when it comes to the basic philosophical questions that have plagued mankind for centuries.
The Leftovers isn’t interested in solving existential angst in its final season. It is very interested in the meaning people seek to graft onto the inexplicable. It’s always used The Departure as a type of Rorschach test: What do characters see when they look at it? The show is spiritual rather than religious, meaning that while certain characters look at the event through specific orthodoxies, most just simply try to derive meaning in the face of utter anarchy. It freezes certain people in place, and shoots others careening through the universe with the speed and randomness of a pinball flinging off the bumpers of life.
Because each episode is so tightly focused on a single character, and because each character reacts so uniquely (and messily) to their realities, The Leftovers dramatizes a broad spectrum of how society tries to reframe the very concept of morality in the potential absence of any connective tissue binding people to one another. For those that believe in a god binding everyone together, what does it say about that figure unleashing so much pain? For those for whom The Departure confirms the absence of such a figure, what’s to keep society itself running? Are things that we deem have meaning infused with it simply through the power of collective belief, or do they exist only to point out pointlessness itself?
The final season of The Leftovers doesn’t offer a single answer for all characters, but does bring most to a place where they can decide for themselves what they believe, and how best to proceed themselves without trying to convince the world of their beliefs. Given how difficult that alone can be, that the show provides so many satisfying conclusions to so many disparate character paths is something of a miracle in and of itself.
5) The show suggests that The Departure is part of a continuum rather than a standalone phenomenon.
Without spoiling Lost or Battlestar: Galactica (although at this point, I don’t feel terribly bad if I do), The Leftovers carries in their tradition of implying that the actions depicted in the program’s primary timeline are variations of past cycles of which the protagonists are not aware. The Leftovers got into this a bit in season two with a striking, wordless opening sequence set thousands of years before the modern era, and there may or may not be another variation on that theme fairly early on this season as well.
What’s compelling about this type of storytelling isn’t that it can launch a thousand thinkpieces for content-starved websites, but it suggests that we’re not alone in this modern era in confronting the types of questions these characters face. Hope, loss, comfort, crisis, mystery, pain, and love are part of every era that humans have walked the earth, which makes The Departure in this context simultaneously more and less important. The Departure is singular (perhaps) in execution but universal (unfortunately) in terms of forcing people to reckon with the very meaning of their own existences. All of us have wondered what the hell it all means before, and all of us will wonder what the hell all of this means again.
The Leftovers constantly confronts people with their instinctive, narcissistic, self-protective reactions to crises and asks why we don’t lean on each other when it’s most vital. Ultimately, that’s why it’s no longer the torture porn of season one and has transformed into one of the most powerful affirmations of life on the small screen. That transformation changed the frequency of the show in a way that stopped it from going completely over my head to hitting me square in the chest and heart. I hurt when I watch this show, but I also rarely feel more alive. It acknowledges pain and embraces hope, and allows each character to define that final word for themselves rather than impose a single definition.
That’s why it’s my favorite.
That’s why it’s the best.