Wednesday, 10 September 2014

THE LEFTOVERS - Season One • good grief or lamentable bore?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

I've felt conflicted about HBO's THE LEFTOVERS all season, and that's a compliment. I enjoy shows that get you thinking about your own taste, opinions, and the reactions of others. This isn't an easy show to watch week-to-week, as it's superficially a downer of Biblical proportions. A looped video of a skinhead kicking a puppy contains more joy.

The enticing premise that's the springboard of the show's drama ("what if 2% of the world's population just vanished?") is powerful enough to draw you in, but I'm not sure everyone was prepared for how aggressively The Leftovers would focus on abject grief and societal weirdness. This was never going to be a "happy" show, but I get the impression many people were expecting more of an exciting, compelling mystery to be driving things along at a brisker pace. It's been developed for television by Damon Lindelof, after all; who famously ran TV's most popular mystery series, Lost. And even if you didn't like that puzzling castaway drama, or hated how it ended, it felt nimbler and was more accessible than The Leftovers.

But even those who didn't, for even just second, expect The Leftovers to explain its global disappearances, the show's tone and style is perhaps too alienating for some. I've enjoyed watching "depressing" shows in the past, so that wasn't a particular hindrance for me, but I did occasionally stop to wonder what the long-term goal is. If The Leftovers has no intention of answering its elephant-in-the-room questions ("where did everyone go and why were they taken?"), are we just going to be watching years of aftermath drama?

While there are very interesting areas to explore about a world still struggling to accept these bizarre absences—as demonstrated this season with the annoyingly mute Guilty Remnant cult and a wannabe-Messiah who hugs people's grief away—I'm not sure there's enough to take the show into a third or fourth season. After awhile, no matter how emotional and fascinating the drama's subtleties become, I have a suspicion people will simply start craving Answers.

I would probably be less concerned if The Leftovers was a miniseries, or HBO announced it will end after three years. But with U.S TV you're always half-expecting a good thing to be stretched beyond its means, so long as ratings are buoyant. Even cable network don't seem to want anything to go less than five seasons, even if quality has clearly slipped.

Anyway, after ten episodes, The Leftovers has finished its first season and I consider it a success, despite concerns about its future. There were slow patches in this season, a handful of dull sub-plots, and characters I don't care about (all of the teenagers)... but there was also a lot of very powerful material, brilliantly acted. This season contained at least three indelible images (that stoning sequence was truly harrowing), and the performances from Justin Theroux's a cop ironically losing his family post-event, Carrie Coon as a grief-stricken woman whose husband and kids all vanished, and Ann Dowd as the resolute leader of the Guilty Remnant, were especially engrossing. I also liked the fun support from Christopher Eccleston as ex-preacher Matt Jamison (who was spotlighted in an early highlight episode), Paterson Joseph as a self-appointed religious leader, and Michael Gaston as a strange dog-killing fanatic.

Even if you just didn't like The Leftovers because it was too painful to watch these people suffering, the quality of writing and acting was beyond reproach. It arrived fully-formed, too; knowing exactly what it wanted to be, what it wanted to do, and how to go about doing it. If it didn't work for you, that's fine. A lot of people question why some have denounced The Leftovers as 'misery porn' (because what else do they expect a show about this situation to be like?), but I have sympathy for that viewpoint.

It's just not a categorically bad show because you can't find merit in watching. The only issue I have with the nature of the storytelling is that sometimes the characters seemed to wallow in their own grief, and I don't personally believe humans would fail to be more resilient. It might even be more likely people would recover quicker, as it's a shared experience with so many other people the world over. I know from personal experience that it helps to discuss the death of a family member with someone who's gone through a similar tragedy, so why not apply that to the world of The Leftovers on a bigger scale?

Surprisingly, this show held its audience very well on HBO. 1.7 million watched the premiere, and 1.54m were still watching for the finale. It's nowhere near as popular as other HBO dramas like True Blood, but those who liked it appeared to have stuck with it. The drop-off was negligible, which I would never have predicted given how relentlessly foreboding the opening few episodes were.

I just wonder if the audience will now grow through word-of-mouth, as viewers can pass judgement on the entire season and recommend to friends (or not), and HBO will see ratings rise for season 2. I suspect they'll be largely the same, however. The show can't help but feel very niche.

What did you make of The Leftovers? Did you watch it every week? Did you ditch it quite early? Were you lured back by friends recommending it? Or have you yet to even see it? (It arrives on Sky Atlantic in the UK on 16 September.)