We humans are so incredibly complex. Even those of us who grow up in the exact same household with the same parents will be unique, just a bit unlike one another. We see beauty in different ways and are attracted to works of art according to our own preferences. We demonstrate our emotions in a multitude of ways, and when tragedy strikes there is no one manner in which every single one of us will react.
An amazing television production completed its final season a few weeks ago. The Leftovers was an offering of HBO that never quite caught the attention of a wide ranging audience, but it became a cult favorite of enough individuals to keep it alive for a year longer than HBO management intended. I am among those who believed from the very beginning that I was watching a masterpiece of theater unfold before my very eyes and I was rarely disappointed.
The Leftovers takes us to a situation in which people suddenly and quite randomly disappear on an otherwise normal October day. There is no rhyme or reason that explains who was selected or why certain people were left behind. Some families were not affected at all and others were decimated. It was a mysterious tragedy that left most of the world bereft and focused on dealing with the emotions that might accompany such a strange happening.
The story that unfolds introduces us to a cast of characters from Mapleton, New York who are dealing with the trauma each in his or her own way. The power of the program lies in the unveiling of the individual emotions of those people, and the actors portray them with a craft that is worthy of every possible award. They bring a humanity and believability to the stories even when they become far fetched indeed.
I don’t believe that anybody ever intended the audience to see the sequence of events in The Leftovers as anything other than allegories and metaphors for life. The plot unfolds in a kind of dreamlike sequence that strains credibility if one demands rational explanations. Instead it should be viewed much as one considers an abstract painting in which reality takes many forms. The best way to watch The Leftovers is as a tour de force of imagery and acting that is superior to most of the simple minded fodder on television.
In its three seasons the story moves from New York to Texas to Australia. I happened to be camping in McKinney Falls State Park in Austin when some of the Texas sequences were being filmed there. It was fun to see the images of places so familiar to me. My granddaughter was called for a role in the program that summer, but when they learned that she was not yet twelve they had to turn her away because the work would have been too dangerous for a younger child. I suspect that it might also have been a bit traumatic as well because The Leftovers is a show that is never fearful of taking emotional climaxes to the very limit.
This series is not for the faint of heart. It ruthlessly studies our humanity and the ways in which we choose to deal with tragedy or attempt to ignore it. Ultimately it becomes a story about love. It looks at questions of faith and portrays true believers as well as agnostics. It does not attempt to provide the audience with any kind of answers, but instead tempts us to think about such things and wonder how we might react if we were to endure a similar situation. I keeps the mysteries of our existence in the realm of unanswered questions, leaving us to decide for ourselves what everything that we see actually means.
I have discussed this series with a number of people who were discouraged from watching by the ephemeral feel of the story. I suppose that they require a bit more closure and reality than I do. I find myself agreeing with Bob Dylan, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, that if the words and ideas of an artistic endeavor somehow sound good to us, we will imprint our own meanings on them. For me The Leftovers is a journey into a kind of hell much like Dante’s Inferno. It shows the dark places that we take ourselves as we search for meaning in an often cruel and confusing world. It provides us with a small taste of optimism as well in demonstrating that it is in the relationships that we somehow manage to build even when the worst happens that we ultimately find our salvation.
Everything about The Leftovers is so carefully considered for its impact. The music is as important as the script. The images are often like great paintings from the most masterful of artists. The acting is so real and intense that it often leaves those of us in the audience breathless. It is like watching a moving definition of beauty and truth.
I am sometimes reluctant to recommend The Leftovers to anyone because it is the essence of a figurative world where every aspect of the show means something and those meanings can be very different for each person. If you tend toward the literal this program probably won’t work for you, but if you are willing to suspend reality for the sake of pure art then you may be in for a treat.
For those of us who are huge fans of this program it is sad to realize that it is no more, but it is also true that elongating the story for the sake of keeping it going would undoubtedly detract from its ultimate beauty. The Leftovers is a masterpiece that will be studied by writers, actors and directors for years to come. I’m glad that I was part of the audience that understood its genius from the very beginning. I will miss Kevin and Nora and Matt and the others, but I am thankful that they came into my life for three years and provided me with a glimpse of brilliance.