Thursday, July 13, 2017

Theory Thursday (TV Edition): "The Leftovers" is One of HBO's Greatest Series

Scene from The Leftovers
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: This week marked the release of this year's Emmy nominations.
Theory: The Leftovers is one of HBO's greatest series.

As with every year, today marks the release of the Emmy nominations. Recognizing the best work in TV, it is one of the awards in the coveted EGOT, alongside Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. To win an Emmy is seen as a great honor for TV veterans, and it's no easy feat. While this is a blog dedicated to film, I felt that taking a quick detour to TV (which has some circles incorrectly suggesting that it's replacing movies) would be of value. True, there were great shows nominated from this year: The Crown, Better Call Saul, The Handmaid's Tale. I don't fault any of those nominees (not so wild about Stranger Things, but that'll just be digression). However, there was another common cry among TV fanatics when the nominations came out. There were a few series missing. The one that I am choosing to focus on, and which I hope you'll give the time of day when all is said and through, is The Leftovers.

It is in some ways laughable to try and convince audiences a few years ago to watch this HBO drama. It was from notorious co-creator of Lost, Damon Lindelof. He didn't exactly have the best track record following that infamously maligned ending. Prometheus (which I think is underrated), Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland didn't exactly turn the tides either during those years. It makes going into a show that can be looked at as a more serious, dour version of the "Left Behind," as something of a challenge. The first few episodes had that familiar symbolism that many found empty and meaningless in Lindelof's other work. Even if that wasn't an issue, it still was a series that focused on the survivors of a rapture. There's a lot of lingering loneliness, delusional cries for help, and very little that could be read as fun. In fact, season one may be among the most depressing seasons of TV, True Detective season two's wasted potential notwithstanding. 

So, what is there to like about the series? For those willing to give Lindelof the benefit of the doubt, there may be an issue for those who genuinely can't stand difficult adult themes. The first season features plenty of psychological turmoil that is engaging, but mostly appeals to the manic depressive standpoint. Anyone who has experienced a loss can likely relate to how hard it is to fill the empty void left by the rapture. There's even deeper spiritual questions to be had with the idea of being left behind. There's questions of whether you're a hopeless sinner, and what do you do to return to a normal life when half of what made that function is gone. There's small factions, such as The Guilty Remnant, who serve as a cult to counteract the rapture. While the pilot is long and full of a lot of character introductions, it ends up being useful in the long run to have suffered through the sadness.

It becomes difficult to admit that this show is great, because of how isolating the beginning is. It's also hard to suggest that one just jump into season two. There's almost a need to watch season one to feel the psychology of the characters, such as Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon's performances. They are a fractured couple suffering from different kinds of mental illness, and there is hope when they're together. It's difficult to even suggest that there's some great supernatural surprises in store, because the series is best discovered in the moment. Still, seasons two and three are emotionally an improvement on the first two, in large part because they subtly feel like Lindelof is exploring grief through tone. As the pain begins to go away, the show gets lighter, and even more comedic. It's not entirely gone, but there are several episodes in season three that can be considered a perfect mix of spiritual existentialism and ribald comedy.

In some ways, The Leftovers has some ties to The Sopranos. No, there aren't any mobsters. However, there is that therapeutic search for meaning in a world that isn't what you'd expect. You keep trying to better yourself, but the recurring patterns pull you back into negative spirals. Lindelof may not have intentionally borrowed influence, but the choice to mix in dream sequences and cryptic meaning within scenes feels like the latter half of The Sopranos, which was doing its best to explore the potential of what a family/crime drama could be. The Leftovers seemed to work in reverse and suggested that things could get better. Meanwhile, The Sopranos ends on a note that is likely to frustrate audiences for decades to come. That's the one difference for Lindelof's show. Unlike Lost, the ending is satisfying while asking the audience to be attentive and ask whether or not the characters have evolved. In some sense, it's an ending that helps to explain what type of person you are along with the series.

It's brilliant writing, and season three is already one of the genuine best seasons of TV period, even beyond HBO. It blended comedy and drama so precisely and unpredictably that no show has come close. With only 28 episodes, it's on the lighter side of HBO fare. Even then, it packs a lot of emotional stakes, and makes it difficult to want to binge watch when compared to other excellent series like Game of Thrones or Westworld. It's almost a miracle that The Leftovers was allowed to run its natural course. It was challenging in ways that no show was allowed to be. It was about religion, but it was more about faith in humanity and hope for a better tomorrow. The third season feels innovative and pushed boundaries to include a riff on the Perfect Strangers series, as well as featuring an impressive hip-hop soundtrack. Not bad for a show whose sole creative tongue-in-cheek moment in season one was altering Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" into a beautiful choir tune. 

It also should be noted that even if The Leftovers being robbed of a Best Drama Emmy seems a little too audacious, one cannot exclude Coon. While she's getting due recognition for her lesser work on Fargo, her performance here is one of the all time greatest in the TV drama landscape. She is able to be reserved, vulnerable, and compelling with every last acting choice that she brings to the character. It's a powerful, complex character that proves why she is one of the greats. If nothing else, her work in the finale is some powerful work. Given how simple the final scene is, she manages to deliver it simply but effectively. You buy into her pain and her joy. She embodies what the show is about, which is finding communion in a dire time. Theroux has also never been better in an even more complicated and weird role. In fact, the show has a strong supporting cast that has given the show plenty to work with over the three seasons.

Part of me is disappointed that The Leftovers didn't clean up Emmy nominations in their final year. Of course, that's part of the compelling tapestry that is awards season. Not everything can be nominated. Even then, it's likely going to build over time that The Leftovers was a show that worked so powerfully on another level. It is one of HBO's oddest shows, if just because there's nothing as depressing on the air, especially from someone who is notorious as a writer. Still, he proves himself greatly here, and it makes me excited to see what he does with the Watchmen series. It may not be on par with this, but I hope that those who gave up on his work give him another chance. This series is a masterpiece, and part of its charm comes in the dedication to getting through the good and bad times together. 

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