Why HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’ Really Matters, And What It Is Trying To Tell Us About Ourselves

Entertainment Features
06.30.14 119 Comments

It’s interesting, and not a coincidence that Tom Perrotta decided in the premise for The Leftovers to make two percent of the world’s population disappear, or one in 50 people. This is about to get heavy here, but think about your own lives, and the people you’ve known who have died in your 20, 30, 40 years on the planet. Some of you may have lost your grandparents, or a parent, maybe even a brother or sister or best friend. But there are the random people you knew from high school who have since passed on. Friends of friends that died in car accidents. A teacher who died of cancer. A guy from work who had a freak accident and died. That strange kid you went to camp with who killed himself. Think about it: If you’re under the age of 45, 50, 55, if you look around, probably two percent of the people you have known have died in your lifetime.

But those deaths have been spread out over the course of your life, and we’ve come to treat death with a certain flippancy. Most of us no longer experience death in deep and profound ways. My father died on my third day of law school, and it didn’t stop me from attending classes on the fourth day before flying home for the funeral. People lose close family members and go back to work a few days later. We hear about an old girlfriend that died in a car accident, we feel a pang of sadness, and then we finish our sandwich and move on.

One in 50 people disappeared in The Leftovers. One in 50 people in our lives probably die every year. But we don’t live in a culture that really and truly confronts those deaths. What’s most interesting about The Leftovers is that, instead of spreading the deaths in our lives over years or decades, they disappear all at once, and even if the sum total is about the same, the people left behind are forced to confront it. The show is designed so that these characters are made to feel, and experience, and grieve those losses, because it happens on a worldwide scale, and it’s in their faces every day.

Why do we call them heroes, one guys asks of the vanished in The Leftovers? My brother-in-law disappeared, he said, and “he was a piece of sh*t.” And in any other instance, that character would’ve reluctantly gone to the funeral, bit his tongue while his wife grieved, and moved on with this life. In The Leftovers, however, he still has to contend with his brother-in-law’s death three years later. He has to attend a parade to celebrate his life. “Everybody is ready to feel better,” the mayor says. And that’s our natural instinct. But in The Leftovers, those instincts are thwarted by a bigger force.

Why these people disappeared is a mystery, but so is death. We don’t any better understand why one person has to die than we understand why 2 percent of the world’s population disappears. But that number is big enough that at least the characters in The Leftovers can’t simply overlook it. They can’t say, “Well, they’re in heaven now.” Or “she’s in a better place.” Or even, “When you die, it’s just over.” The sudden disappearance of two percent of the population makes you question everything about your own belief system, about religion, about science, about death. You can’t escape it. You can’t throw yourself into your job, because someone there is gone, or someone there knows someone who is gone. Death is all around them. You can’t even look to the Bible, or the Koran, or whatever your religious text might be, because there’s no Biblical explanation for why those particular people were chosen, as Christopher Eccleston’s character suggests in the series.

There’s a lot going on in the pilot episode of The Leftovers. The Chief of Police, Kevin, lost his wife, Laurie, to the Guilty Remnant, which chooses to smoke, stay silent, and spook people into joining them. His son Tom is involved with another cult, of sorts, whose leader apparently has the power to heal people of their guilt and/or abandonment issues. His daughter Jill is trying to live a normal teenage girl’s life with all of this hanging over her. There’s deer/antler imagery. There are feral dogs. There’s a town trying desperately to move past their losses.

But all of that is simply a mirror that’s being held up to our faces by Perrotta and Lindelof, and they’re asking us to look at ourselves, look at our lives, and confront death. What do we believe? Can we truly square our beliefs with reality? What does it mean to lose someone? How do we cope, or do we simply deny? The Leftovers is designed to take denial out of the equation. In the context of this drama, we can’t just ignore death. We have to ask these questions of ourselves. We have to look death straight on.

It’s going to be an interesting, thought-provoking, and heavy 10 weeks. Buckle the f**k in.

Random Notes

— There’s color imagery right out of the gate. Light blue is everywhere, in the font chosen to advertise the parade, in the ribbons hung to denote lost family members, in the shirts many of the characters wear, in the color of doors. Once you see it, it’s inescapable.

— “God sat this one out,” an “expert” tells a Senator during the Congressional hearing. In other words, don’t look for religious explanations here.

— On the second re-watch, once I knew that Kevin and Laurie were married, I thought it was interesting that Kevin essentially picked his wife up during the parade scuffle and neither of them really even acknowledged each other. The woman Laurie has become is clearly not the wife he once knew.

— There’s going to be a lot more to suss out in the weeks to come, but let’s wait and watch subsequent episodes so we can put some of the other developments into context. Those feral dogs, however, are a fascinating wrinkle, and very Lindelofian. We’ve got our first smoke monster.

— If you don’t have HBO, and want to sample The Leftovers, the pilot episode is currently available on Yahoo.

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