As the finale of The Leftovers comes to UK screens, a Jokerslice in praise of a series that broke expectation to be something quite more than the sum of its parts… And its forebears. Includes ‘Leftover’ Spoilers throughout and up to the end of the first season.
WHILE WE’RE DELUGED WITH SUPERHERO TELEVISION SERIES, NONE PERFECT, MANY PROMISING, IT’S EASY TO FORGET WHEN THE PEAK OF GENRE TELEVISION ARCS HIT LAST DECADE. Lost was possibly the prime example, FlashForward the wasted high-level duplicate late in the game, drawing on a literary source to capture the zeitgeist while failing to avoid repetition. Currently, The Dome and its ilk are the distilled versions, leaning far more on literary roots, for instance Stephen King, while never becoming truly mystifying. And frankly, there are too many others to mention. With the 2010s came fully formed fantasy television, long removed from space and star ships, which remained resolutely terrestrial – whether that’s comics, fairytales or Alcatraz. Even the Whedonverse slowly retreated more and more to Earth, at the cost of the supernatural. Over the last 14 years, Lost may signify a high-budget transition, but its legacy remains.
When it comes to comic books, arcs are innate. Despite the continuity issues that come with multiple creators, Marvel Comics have ostensibly told a continuous storyline for at five decades (at least). Very much attempting to form their own mythology there’s little in comparison to these New Gods, certainly in the modern age. This ‘Fall’ season, shows like Constantine and The Flash are pulling and reinterpreting plot strands from their comic roots while Gotham draws on the strength and weakness of expectation; exploring broadly unknown territory pre-Batman, with the choice to either fulfil or destroy the inevitable. The trick with that show, a rather curious mix of pantomime and deadpan procedural, is not to speculate about characters too much.
But away from that fictional East Coast metropolis, there are other new shows that have defied expectation without any such back story or promise. But with the guiding hand of Lost’s Damon Lindelof behind the scenes, The Leftovers is perhaps all the more remarkable that it shares so much in common with the awkwardly named FlashForward.
FlashForward was strongly and extravagantly cast, just hitting at the very end of Lost’s extended lifespan. Inspired by Robert J Sawyer’s 1999 science-fiction novel FlashForward it’s immediately impressive ratings fell to a third following a mid-season hiatus and mildly turbulent changes behind the scenes. FlashForward had been developed by HBO before ABC picked it up and commissioned a pilot. So perhaps it’s all the stranger that a year after that show’s cancellation, HBO acquired the rights to an unpublished novel with, not so much similar but quite the immediately opposite central hook.
Novel-sourced long-form shows have always met a mixed fate, and recent examples stick haven’t broken he rule. Hannibal has made a break from its well known literary roots, mainly thanks to merciless grasps on filming rights. The result was a quickly morphing procedural, imbued with a sense of creeping dread and horror befitting the source while ducking the familiar and lauded film adaptations. Last year, in the difficult Friday night slot NBC currently have Constantine pacing, Dracula played too fast and loose with the famous source material for a creeping tale of rather dull capitalism and starched occultism. But more on that return of the Vlad coming to Jokerside soon…
The Leftovers came less from nowhere, more from that low level of expectation. An unknown quantity, with a pitch that could be lost among many others. The development time was longer than some, a good couple of years – a luxury missing from many recent comic series, particularly Gotham.
The Leftovers. Three years after 2% of the world’s population disappear in the “Sudden Departure”, the inhabitants of Mapleton New York struggle to adapt to a world so similar and yet so different…
Compare that to the marooned of Lost, the mysterious glimpse six months into the future that affects the whole of Earth in FlashForward. There were signs of a return to that world with Heroes’ come back acting as a retro-superhero harbinger. But the quality and depth was still a surprise…
The Leftovers is more than a natural heir to Lost. It features, event relies on a more advanced and prolonged black humour, particularly in its early lightening fast flashbacks. While in Lost these pieced together a mosaic, at least initially, from the endgame, The Leftovers uses them as sharp recalls, often with an ambiguity that focuses the impenetrable mystery. The crucial exploration shows a world familiar and a world changed, revelations piecing together facts through negation rather than the obvious. And its compelling, often framed in the best horror tradition. Recent developments such as the departed Garvey child surely indicate that there is no return… But you never can tell in a universe that doesn’t quite fit.
Thematic crossovers with FlashForward plot are inevitable, from destiny and freewill through to, in particular, conflict theory. But in an even more mature market. From the dog scenes and friendships that recall The Walking Dead to the quirk of Twin Peaks – with added association from Theroux’s presence in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It sits knowingly in a television tradition.
It’s the brilliant portrayal of Chief Garvey by Justin Theroux that a lot of the weight on broad shoulders. And that’s a combination. FlashForward put great stead in characterisation, but in The Leftovers there’s some brilliantly broad moments of genuine comedy hidden in the most human responses – particularly, and childishly, Theroux’s swearing.
Much praise has fallen on the acting in general, with Christopher Eccleston’s Matt and his sister Nora, portrayed by the brilliant Connie Coon carrying two exemplary episodes a-piece, almost single-handedly. In general, the cast is sublime, giving necessary room for the characters to grow and breathe from levity to darkness. And that’s what’s needed without judgement on some of the complex concepts that arise. The reverend Matt’s tale, one of the most redolent of Lost with its futility, constant twist and dark fable, was the one that tied me in, three episodes along.
But unlike FlashForward, it’s consistently stunning in its film-making. Using tricks and tricks for subversion and tracking of co-incidence. There’s something wholesomely old-fashioned about some aspects, when it’s not aping horror, domestic drama or road trips.
Of course such a show rewards repeat viewing, not that the box set culture offers much of a chance, once the last episode has been passed. But only if you dare; such is the compelling futility and nihilism. It’s been described as one of the bleakest TV dramas ever made, but that’s not the whole story. The Guilty Remnant are a brilliant creation, nihilistic and shrouded in secrecy that they seem unaware of until they need to be, all the while hatching incendiary plan for episodes at a time. They are a chilling distortion but also suspense, the bomb not going off. Amy Brenneman and Liv Tyler took on challenging roles in their ranks and it’s easy to see the attraction. It’s a quite stunning framing and exploration of loss.
Every family is affected in the fictional Mapleton, but all in different ways. Often by association as much as personal experience. It’s the casting and tight serial aspect, reduced to the manageable 10 parts that helps that achieve its efficacy. Though reasons and resolutions must remain vague, it’s the clearly yet subtly (or vividly personally) changed world, where only a finger pressed to the surface reveals the extent of change.
Sound & Vision
Aside from a well pitched score, The Leftovers’ effective title sequence reinforces the idea of a rapture. But it’s less an explanation as a further attempt to turn the unimaginable to myth. And of course, that’s the concept. It continually confounds expectation while expertly but not overworking crossovers and catching and revealing character development at an expert pace. It reinforces the need for religion while putting Christianity and old religions in a vice. There are no easy answers and nor should there be.
With its vision of a world familiar but altered, The Leftovers is arguably science fiction in one of its purest senses. But that does it an injustice.
I wouldn’t suggest that it’s food for thought, it’s too removed for that. But it’s food for emotion, despite the inevitable schmaltz that creeps in at parts. The sentimentality actually works as a plot continuance in its very static location, rather than a cheap concession to holding an audience. And that may well be the true metaphor of the biblical titles. It’s not the big changes that create the captivating escapism but the small ones. The nuances, the quirk. And where it fits into the current TV landscape so well. The finale has brought the minimal outside world in, thanks to the Garvey’s son and the, hopefully, not finite loss of Patterson Joseph’s brilliant Holy Wayne.
The Leftovers is really a brewing happenstance. A mini-Rapture of its own and one to watch. It’s been green-lit for a new ten part series, and well deserved it is.