The third and final season of the HBO series The Leftovers is upon us, with its premiere scheduled for April 15th. We live in the era of peak TV, with an incredible amount of great TV shows. There is Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Americans, The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, The Expanse, Girls, The Young Pope, Master of None, Legion, Taboo (although I am not sure if this one is great or simply weird), but of all the TV shows that I like now, none other has been as meaningful, thought provoking and moving to me as The Leftovers. I find the story and the characters engaging, it makes me think, it keeps me guessing, it surprises me, it can be dark, very dark at times, but there is darkness in the world and in the human heart, and the show doesn’t shy away from it. It is also a show about loss, and suffering, and loneliness, but also about the importance of empathy, and love, and community, and how fragile and precious human existence is. And above all, it is a show about searching for meaning, about who we are, about what it means to be human, about the existence (or not) of God, and the role of faith and religion in our lives.
The series has been, overall, well-liked by critics, and it has a small but faithful group of followers, but it is a “niche” show, and most people I know do not watch it (“it’s too depressing,” “it’s weird”). Since the show will be ending its run this season, let me give you 5 reasons as to why you may want to consider giving it a shot.
1. It is based on a great novel by Tom Perrotta:
The Leftovers is based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel of the same name. The novel examined the effects in the small town of Mapleton, New York (social, psychological, spiritual) of a rapture-like event, called the Sudden Departure, in which 2% of the world’s population simply vanishes without any logical explanation. The event looks very much like the Rapture described in traditional Christian escathology, but among the many who have disappeared are non-Christians, criminals, while many of the people who believed and waited for this event to happen were left behind. In the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, an array of new messianic figures and religious movements emerge trying to bring meaning to a world in which traditional religion seems to have no answers. In the novel, all the main characters are searching for meaning, only to be confronted with what appears to be a meaningless universe. Was this the Rapture? Was this an act of God? And if so, what is its meaning? And why would God (if God indeed was the origin of the rapture-like event) do something like this? Why would the Universe, or the Sacred, or God manifest itself only to make sure it cannot be understood? What kind of cruel joke is that? And how are the characters (the “leftovers”) supposed to live in such a world?
The first season follows quite closely the main plot of the novel, but seasons 2 and 3 explore the universe and the characters created by Perrotta in new settings and with new plots.
2. The novel by Tom Perrotta was adapted by Damon Lindelof:
Damon Lindelof, the co-creator and showrunner of the TV show Lost is the main producer, writer, and showrunner of The Leftovers. Both shows do share similar DNA, with a big central mystery at their hearts, an Island in the case of Lost and the Sudden Departure in the case of The Leftovers. I was a big fan of Lost (one of the most perfect imperfect shows on network television of the last decade), including its ending, but I can also understand the frustration of some of the people who were deeply committed to that show. In fact, in the Leftovers, Lindelof seems to be atoning for the criticism he received in the aftermath of the Lost finale (in fact, atonement is one of the main themes of the show), exploring very similar themes to his early show, but taking a very different route.
One of the things I’ve discussed before in this blog, is how there are some products of popular culture that can be read as scripture, in the way they are written and in the way they are consumed. I would argue that Lindelof’s work does fit this mold of a creator who lives proudly in the realm of popular culture, but who is using his platform to explore and ask questions that go beyond simple entertainment. I would even argue that The Leftovers is structured as scripture of sorts, with the first season being the Old Testament, the second season the New Testament, and the third season a Last (or Final) Testament (there is even a joke at some point in the first few episodes of the third season that hints at this).
Lindelof, unlike many creators who are happy to follow the path of a successful template once it is established, also keeps reinventing the show each season. The first one, follows Perrotta’s novel quite closely and focuses on the small town of Mapleton in New York, but for the second season, he moves the action to Jarden, Texas, a town with clearly Biblical connotation (as in the Garden of Eden) and introduces a whole new cast of characters. The final season, as it is already hinted at in the promos, takes place in great part in Australia, revisiting some old characters and introducing still a few new ones. Very few successful shows are willing to reinvent themselves in such a way, which makes every season a total new exciting experience.
3. This is a show about religion.
Since this is a blog about religion in popular culture, it does make sense that I would see this as one of the main strengths of the show. As I have pointed out, none other show on TV right now explores faith and religion as The Leftovers does. At the heart of the show we have the Sudden Departure, a clear reference to the Christian Rapture. And this is a show about the need for faith and meaning, about the importance of religion (and also its failures). The Leftovers explores religion by resetting the world to a biblical time of sorts, a time of gods and prophets, of religious fervor, and where unlikely events seemed to be common, from the Sudden Departure in the first season, the existence of the Garden of Eve in the second (the town of Jarden, Texas), and the Great Flood in the third. The series also explores the origins of religious movements and its founders, such as the Guilty Remnant, a group with a nihilistic theology, whose members have taken a vow of silence, and follow people around town to “remind” them of day of the Rapture, and Holy Wayne, a post-rapture religious figure, who offers spiritual and emotional comfort, albeit not an answer to what happened. The show also explores the struggles of traditional religion in dealing with the Suddent Departure, as seen in the figure of the episcopal priest played by Matt Jamison, who holds onto his Christian faith, but struggles to make sense of the event. Finally, there is Kevin, the main character in the show played by Justin Theroux, who is the police chief of the town of Mapleton, and later Jarden, who struggles with his ability to hear voices, including those of dead people, that are telling him things that come to happen in real life. Is he crazy? Is he a modern shaman? In season three there is even the hint that he may be the Messiah, since in season 2 he dies but raises from the dead? (it is in the promos, so no spoiler here!)
The show also benefits from having the religion scholar Reza Aslan as a consulting producer, and he has played an important role defining some of the religious themes of the show.
4. What matters is the question, not the answer.
As I have mentioned, Lost and The Leftovers, both shows by Lindelof, share a close DNA. Both are shows about mystery and questions. The main difference, I would argue, is that while Lost promised answers (or at least people thought it did, and therefore their disappointment when they didn’t come), The Leftovers just want to focus on the question. The German philosopher Heidegger famously argued that philosophers had forgotten the question of the meaning of Being, and got lost trying to offer answers to a series of wrong questions. Not too get too philosophical or pedantic here (something that easily happens when you invoke Heidegger), but Lindelof seems to realize in The Leftovers that what makes us human is our need for ultimate meaning, our constant impulse to ask questions about who we are and what the point of this whole thing we call existence is. Ultimately, no answer is going to be completely satisfactory, but being human is predicated upon our necessity to ask those questions and our need to create meaning based on the limited and contradictory information we have. Being human, Lindelof seems to argue, means searching for answers knowing that we will never find an answer. If this was not clear enough, the song he chose for the beginning credits of the second season is Iris DeMent’s song “Let the Mystery Be” was a not so subtle hint at this. We will not find out at the end of season 3 if the Sudden Departure was an act of God, or if God exists, or what religion seems to have the ultimate answer to all of our questions, but the show argues that this is a journey, one that took us from Mapleton, to Jarden to Australia, is a journey worth taking.
5. The Leftovers Makes you Think.
Peak TV also means that we are basically entertaining ourselves to death. We spend a lot of our time on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, texting, watching movies and TV shows in all sort of digital platforms. There is no reason why we should have an empty, boring second during our busy days. But this also means that we are constantly distracted. Most modern popular culture is predicated on the idea that we need to be entertained, and I am ok with that, but one of the great things about The Leftovers is that it is entertaining AND thoughtful, you are engaged with its story and characters, but it also makes you think about important issues.
And an extra reason…
Finally, if none of these reasons convince you, let me tell you that courtesy of HBO I have been able to watch the first 7 episodes of the new season and, if you follow my advice, you will not be disappointed. The end of The Leftovers may be coming, and I can’t wait to see it.
A few resources if you want to catch up before the third and final season premieres:
Go to www.watchingtheleftovers.com. They have all sorts of resources to catch you up on the show.
Watch the recap for season 1:
You can watch the recaps for each of the episodes of Season 2 here.