My journey with The Leftovers was, I suspect, fairly typical. Upon its debut, I committed space to the series on the DVR, because it aired on HBO, and it’s basically obligatory as a pop culture devotee to at least sample every new program of significance on the cable channel. Adapted from the novel of the same name by series co-creator Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers focuses on the tilted lives of people existing in a world in which a small percentage of the population suddenly disappeared one day, with no explanation in sight. There were no wild imaginings about how society might recalibrate itself or edifices of civility crumbling into the rubble of a dystopian future. There were simply wounded, recognizable people, shuffling through days marked by grief and confusion.
From the start, I was impressed by the show’s fearless commitment to a bleak outlook, often manifested in the darkest of humor. And yet something didn’t entirely click into place for me. I was even perilously close to quitting altogether after watching the third episode, which closed in on small town reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), delivering upon him the careening fantastical good fortune and cruel fate comeuppance that struck me as an unfortunate echo of the very worst of Lost, the earlier program of The Leftovers series co-creator Damon Lindelof. I stuck it out, ready to snap off the mental commitment at the sign of a similar infraction. Luckily, three episodes later came “Guest,” a showcase for Carrie Coon as Nora Durst, a woman who’d had the notable bad luck of losing her husband and both her children in the even known as the Sudden Departure. It was a powerhouse and the first unimpeachable signal of the brilliance the creators of The Leftovers were onto.
In truth, the second season can be tough sledding, too. The series finds a sharper focus and clearer momentum when it moves into a Texas town that made headlines as one of the only places on the planet that didn’t lose any citizens to the Sudden Departure. The community has been transformed into a bunkered National Park, selectively letting people in for desperate pilgrimages.
The third season, though, is as good as any stretch of television I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of television.
The season opens with a set piece that establishes theme and tone rather than plot, depicting the Sisyphean actions of a nineteen century religious sect that believed the Rapture was imminent, set to the song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” by the nineteen-seventies Christian pop group the Good News Circle. It was hardly the first time The Leftovers strayed from the confines of its chief narrative to make an impression, but purposefulness and ingenuity were like girders of steel to the sequence. To a degree, it’s simply storytelling tomfoolery, offering a pledge of unpredictability as much as anything. But it immediately feels vital, underscoring the universal nature of the series themes. Humanity has always been twisted up in the uncertainty and futility of belief. And it always will be.
As with the leap from the first to second seasons, The Leftovers wastes little time establishing a change of scenery. Though the season begins in Texas, orchestrations are quickly afoot to carry most of the cast to Australia.
Densely constructed, there’s too much detail to reasonably recount here. In some ways, it’s more satisfying to list off the significant plot elements that come in and out of play: a new bible being written around the exploits of former police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the certainty of Kevin’s father (Scott Glenn) that he must collect Aboriginal chants to stomp an impending second Sudden Departure, a device that can supposedly send people to encounter those who’d previously departed, the mere existence of an Australia sex party boat celebrating the legend of a nineteen-seventies swinger lion.
In the mere describing, it all sounds absurd. Sometimes it plays out — deliberately so — as absurd, too. And yet it’s also all poignant, true, meaningful. This is a series that once pulled off the feat of making a karaoke performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” in a purgatory hotel bar into a scene of profound emotional power. It’s as if the creative team asking themselves if they could be that audaciously inventive across an entire season of television. And then they resounding answered in the affirmative.
Material like this needs actors who are all in, scraping to find the streaks of honesty within the most lunatic imaginings. Theroux is a marvel as Kevin, drawing upon a endless variety of expressions of perplexed anguish. And there’s grand work from Eccleston, Glenn, Amy Brenneman (as Kevin’s ex-wife, Laurie), and Regina King (briefly, but memorably, as Erika, a neighbor from Texas and confidante of Nora). The clear standout, though, is Coon. Nora is simultaneously defiant and bereft, operating with forceful certainty and yet almost entirely astray. She’s a fierce cynic and an aching believer all in one.
The third season was the last for The Leftovers, and the title of the finale, “The Book of Nora” (which mirrors the season premiere, titled “The Book of Kevin”), suggests that Nora has been the core character all along. In the particulars, Kevin has gone on the wildest ride — almost literally to Hell and back — but in the soul, which is what the show is resonantly about, Nora is the one whose life has been the stormiest of seas. Coon plays that tumult without hesitation, but also with wise restraint. She’s masterful.
I can say with certainty that the third season of The Leftovers is phenomenal and the two leading up to it are of wavering quality. And yet I can’t imagine watching the third season in isolation and feeling the same impact. There’s no mysteries that couldn’t be puzzled out easily enough, I don’t think, nor are the various callbacks necessarily so joyfully nostalgic that stripping them of familiarity would doom the experience.
Instead, part of the triumph of the third season is the way it feels like a proper culmination of all that’s come before. Again, this is less in the rigors of the narrative than in the artful realization of all of the ideas flowing through the series, sometimes with such cascading force ground was eroded that would have been better preserved. The enveloping contentment of the final season is less in the unlikely steering toward hopeful perseverance than in the snapping realization that all that was once unwieldy has been smartly contained and controlled. Living with that aspect of the long creative process adds to the potency of the series’ last lap. The beauty embedded within The Leftovers, especially in its closing moments, wasn’t found. It was earned.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two