That Championship Season — The Leftovers, Season Three

leftovers 3 intro

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.

leftovers church

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.

leftovers 3 passport

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.

leftovers 3 missiles

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.

leftovers nora depart

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.

leftovers 3 nora cry

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent Carter, Season Two

Laughing Matters — Conan Babies

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When Late Night with Conan O’Brien made its debut, in the fall of 1993, I was probably at the peak of my devotion to comedy television that aired around midnight. As a fierce fan of David Letterman, I watched with rooting interest as NBC engaged in the longstanding tradition of botched the transition of Tonight Show hosts. (When Bill Carter’s book on the turbulent situation, The Late Shift, was published the following year, I purchased it as soon as I could and devoured it with vigor.) So I was well aware of the perplexing choice of Letterman’s successor on Late Night (after the future Kennedy Center honoree, denied the post he’d long coveted, jumped to CBS to launch The Late Show), a comedy writer alum of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons who’d spent barely any time at all on the other side of the camera. Even the commercials promoting the introduction of Conan O’Brien as a late night joked about his amateur status. “He’s new at this,” they sheepishly admitted.

A recent college graduate, I had a lot of spare time on my hands when Late Night with Conan O’Brien was added to the NBC programming grid, and I watched from the beginning. While it wasn’t as bad as the most scathing reviews insisted, it wasn’t exactly good, either. But then, with remarkable speed, it evolved to become something downright fantastic, as innovative in its spirited absurdity and genially serrated satire as Letterman was in his showbiz-deflating irony.

Still toiling away among the tumbleweeds of basic cable, O’Brien was recently termed by The New York Times as “The Most Riveting Host in Late Night (and the Most Overlooked).” Realistically, that assessment could have been fairly applied to him from the moment he first got his sea legs on Late Night. I’m not sure if ever viewer had a comedy bit they could readily identify as the one that fully won them over to O’Brien’s Late Night, but the choice is obvious for me: “Conan Babies.”

 

The Art of the Sell — The Flintstones and Winstons

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Even as I roll my eyes and grit my teeth as transparent shilling for products infiltrates ever deeper into U.S. media offerings, I must admit to an abiding affection for the way the early days of television were filled with overt sponsor pitches, often baked right into the programs. There’s something charming about the way everything stopped so characters could expound on the virtues of soap flakes or breakfast cereals.

And then there were the incorporated spots that now look wonderfully absurd, such as a couple of modern Stone Age buddies enjoying a smoke together. Although The Flintstones have long since been relegated to the kid-friendly parts of the cable dial, when the program originally aired, in the nineteen-sixties, it wasn’t really viewed as family fare. It was just another sitcom, The Honeymooners reimagined with caveman jokes. So why wouldn’t Winston cigarettes sign up as a sponsor? And then meant a couple cartoon characters would got to sample the tobacco company’s wares on national television.

Laughing Matters: MST3K, “Here Comes the Circus”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When I was in college, videotapes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may as well have been bricks of gold. Airing on Comedy Central (including a couple years in its initial guise of Comedy Channel, ahead of a merger with rival network Ha!), the ingenious elevation of bad movie heckling into delirious art spoke to our snide, ironic sensibilities. The cable network wasn’t available on our local systems, and most us couldn’t afford the hook-up in our rundown apartments anyway. We knew of it, we read about it, and we even took a local pride in it (creator and star Joel Hodgson was born in our college town of Stevens Point and played one of his last standup gigs at the university before taking MST3K national). But we usually couldn’t watch it.

Then, in 1991, a small miracle happened. Comedy Central turned over a huge chunk of its Thanksgiving Day programming to Hodgson’s endeavor, airing a marathon of MST3K episodes. Invariably, some fellow student would go home for the holidays and return with a stack of VHS tapes, loaded down with MST3K episodes, probably recorded in some basement rec room as the rest of family gorged themselves on turkey and football upstairs.

From then on, even as the show became more readily available through a variety of means, my warmest memories of it are accompanied by thoughts of eagerly sitting before one of those screenings, with wavered tracking and the breathless insistence to maybe watch just one more before closing out the evening. It almost felt illicit, which matched perfectly with the sharpened insolence of the comedy.

The first time I saw Here Comes the Circus, it played off of one of those videotapes. Over two decades later, it’s still hysterical.

 

Laughing Matters — Jerry Seinfeld on Halloween candy

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

“What is this? What did you say? So what did you say about giving out candy? Who is giving out candy? Everyone that we know is just giving out candy?

Laughing Matter — Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, “One Leg Too Few”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I am currently in the midst of listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Tracey Ullman on his podcast, WTF. While Ullman is generous and gracious throughout, she reserves her highest praise — thus far, anyway — for Peter Cook, quickly and emphatically calling him a genius.

For most in the U.S., Cook’s reputation probably extends no further than his brief but memorable (to say the least) turn as “The Impressive Clergyman” in The Princess Bride, those in his homeland undoubtedly view him with more reverence, thanks to his work with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and, most notably, Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe. I don’t claim to be a true and proper scholar of comedy, but I am prepared to say that the sketch “One Leg Too Few,” featuring an eager actor arriving for an audition, is one of the best sketches ever delivered, practically perfect in conception and execution.

If nothing else, there are few better, smart entries in the pantheon of set-up-and-punchlines than the one that begins “I’ve got nothing against your right leg.”

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters — George Carlin, “It’s the old American double standard….”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

This snippet of a longer George Carlin routine was recorded nearly thirty years ago, as part of the 1988 comedy special What Am I Doing in New Jersey? All that’s missing is a reference to football — a subject that the master comedian of course covered ingeniously elsewhere — to make these couple of minutes shockingly pertinent for the current moment.

“We got the only national anthem that mentions rockets and bombs in the goddamn thing.”

It’s tempting to speculate about what commentary Carlin would have crafted about the politics of today. But even a cursory examination of his material shows that Carlin has long recognized, understood, and convincingly challenged the portion of the national character that has come to the forefront in our misbegotten current era.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.