‘The Leftovers’ Makes A Joke Deadly Serious In ‘Don’t Be Ridiculous’

A review of tonight’s The Leftovers coming up just as soon as I get a “Wu-Tang Band” tattoo…

“Four series regulars. Three go. One stays. Me. You know what the odds of that are?” -Mark Linn-Baker

“Don’t Be Ridiculous” opened by giving me the biggest, most prolonged and profoundly soul-warming laugh a TV joke has in years, by bringing back the season two main title sequence, but swapping out Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” for the Perfect Strangers theme, which ordinarily is supposed to accompany these images:

The title of the episode — Balki Bartokomous’ Perfect Strangers catchphrase — primed me for some kind of callback to my favorite weird Leftovers running gag, but I never expected… well, that. There is committing to a joke, and then there is what The Leftovers did at the start of this hour, and it took me a few minutes to compose myself before I could move on to the episode proper. (Had I a good friend or cousin nearby, I might have needed to do the Dance of Joy before continuing. It does not work solo. Trust me.)

But once I was able to accept that The Leftovers had turned into its own meme by presenting Balki and Cousin Larry’s song over the familiar photos of the Suddenly Departed cavorting with their loved ones, “Don’t Be Ridiculous” did that miraculous thing that The Leftovers somehow makes look routine: it turned this silly little joke about a goofy ’80s sitcom into the devastating emotional core of another incredibly powerful episode.

As Mark Linn-Baker — doing some heavy-duty dramatic work as “himself” after a brief comic relief cameo last season — puts it when he first calls Nora, “This is real.”

What started off as a pitch in The Leftovers writers room that made everyone laugh reveals itself here to be something much more complicated and tragic and beautiful, as the idea of Pinchot, Rebecca Arthur, and Melanie Wilson(*) all Departing, while Linn-Baker found himself still on Earth, turns into a numerical parallel to Nora’s own strange circumstance. They weren’t his actual kin, but sitcom casts throw around the phrase “we’re like a family” so much that it’s easy to imagine them starting to believe it, and these are the other three people with whom the world most associates him. Even if he wasn’t in the same room with them with his back turned while one cried about a mean thing he’d just said, the 1 in 128,000 odds of that would of course shake Mark Linn-Baker to his roots, and maybe even inspire him to do something absurd, like faking his own Departure so the world wouldn’t keep asking why he didn’t get to go with the rest of them.

(*) Melanie Wilson’s birthday? October 14th!

The idea that Nora Durst and Mark Linn-Baker could meet in a hotel in St. Louis and discover how much they’re alike would never have occurred to me before I started watching this episode, but by the end of that riveting scene — a reminder that the real Linn-Baker not only has two degrees from Yale (including an MFA), but has more than held his own on stage and screen acting opposite giants like Peter O’Toole(*) and Michael Caine, and can deliver a monologue that’s drowning in technobabble as something understandable and incredibly vital and raw — it made all the sense in the world.