The Best Show On Television

06/16/2016 04:07 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2017

The Leftovers is a beautiful and harrowing story of a world struggling to find meaning within chaos, and of one family within it portraying a microcosm of society’s struggles. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is our anti-hero ― foul-mouthed, perennially tardy and unprofessional, but a dedicated (if often absent) father. He obviously worships no man or being (save his own sculpted torso?) and has no use for navel gazing. His wife has left him for a cult of chain smokers, and it is not until season two that we really find out why. His daughter Jill seems to have embraced nihilism and rebellion ― fairly typical teenage issues but ramped up for the context ― and son Tommy is AWOL, a murderer, lost in every sense of the world, desperately searching for a father or mentor, yet seemingly reluctant to come home to his stepdad.

The facts ― there was an ‘incident’ responsible for 2 percent of the world’s population disappearing. By the time of series one it is three years later, and people have adapted in various ways. Organized religion, strangely, is all but dead ― Nietzsche would be ecstatic. Various cults have sprung up. The most pertinent for us is the Guilty Remnant, who wear the very pure all white, and smoke constantly. They smoke to remember, apparently. They have also taken a vow of silence. It’s all a bit Meher Baba.

From the beginning we know that we are in for something different, and something dark. The title sequence is like viewing the Sistine Chapel on a bad trip. It’s unashamedly religious, and offers a very much glass half empty vision of humanity. Apparently Lindelof and Perrotta only knew they wanted Renaissance art, and the rest was left to Garson Yu and Jon Foster who created the sequence.

Theroux is fantastic and so deeply immersed in his character that the line between reality and illusion becomes blurred. In real life he’s married to the most beautiful girl in the world, has a buff bod and sizable appendage, but is still seemingly a man of real substance and depth. Likewise, the supporting cast are impressive - Margaret Qualley as his daughter Jill, and Emily Meade as her friend Aimee, and Carrie Coon and Amy Brenneman. And Christopher Eccleston is just wonderful as the tortured, yet unfailingly upbeat, Matt. His episode of the first season, Two Boats and a Helicopter, was perhaps the best.

Lindelof continued the philosophical and religious themes from Lost ― except here religion is dying out. Ecclestone’s Matt is the local priest, but is all alone with his sparse flock, and ‘tested’ almost beyond his (and our) endurance. His life is a series of Jobian trials and naive optimism resulting in crisis.

Count how many times someone exclaims “Jesus Christ.” Who says it. How they say it. When they say it. Think that’s a coincidence? Think about how much people swear, and who does it. The flames and fire we see from time to time.The Black Keys and the baby Jesus. And how when Kevin in a moment of frustration exclaims “the Goddamn baby fuckin Jesus” his car instantly cuts out and locks up.

Or when Kevin visits Garvey Senior in the hospital. “I’m a bad man, son” says his dad. “My intentions are good, but...none of us wondered why we were still here. We knew.” Is he saying they are the wicked, and have not been raised up? If so, maybe I should listen to those Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Kevin reading from the Book of Job with Matt over Patti’s grave is possibly one of the greatest scenes in television. Theroux’s acting is flawless as he fights a fierce internal battle, Ecclestone is superb in silence, and the cinematography, the score ― wonderful. Overwhelming misery and seemingly meaningless suffering, judgment from so-called friends, and questioning of life and God is the staple of Job, and of the lives of those in this show (and often our own).

But apart from the undeniable quality of crucial scenes and salient elements of the show ― the acting, the cinematography, the writing, the music ― and a few key scenes breathtaking in their beauty and emotional impact, the whole of season one is, for all concerned, a bit of a trial. A bit like Christ in the desert. Except the temptation here was often to turn off, and turn to another of the many series vying for attention in this Golden Age. Kudos to Lindelof and Perrotta, though. It was hard work, it was slow, it was mostly pessimistic. The antagonist is a middle-aged frumpy white lady, for God’s sake. It took balls, and patience, and it restricted viewership. But for those who persisted, they had gone through hell, and were now in the comparative heaven of...

Season Two

A new series, a new theme song. It is colourful where the former was dull, and upbeat and optimistic whereas the former was dour and ominous. It’s also just a really cool, catchy song.

We are in Miracle, Texas, and we have new characters. African-Americans, no less! We are reunited with a Kevin who is trying valiantly to be a family man, but the cracks are there already. He’s clean shaven now, but still grouchy as hell, and still smoking. He has his guardian angel/demon Patti still with him. He is self sabotaging. (“Do you want to blow your life up?”). And for some bizarre, unexplained reason, he keeps looking wistfully into the trees. All in all, the geographical cure is not working for the Garvey clan, and the disappearance of their new neighbor’s daughter, coupled with Kevin’s frequent amnesiac sleepwalking, add to the tension.

Matt, who was the first to move to Miracle, continues to be unfailingly, almost annoyingly, upbeat, and continues to mess his life up by being a good guy. He has his car jacked after trying to help a stranded man ― but comes upon him later, after said carjacker has been killed after a car crash involving a goat. This, and the goat which is daily sacrificed by one of Miracle’s more colourful residents, reminds us of Matthew 25: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on in season two, and it is quality. All this leads us to perhaps the greatest single episode in television history:

International Assassin

Masterful. Operatic. Epic.

The previously ‘dead’ Garvey is brought forth from the water, of course, out of the womb/bath. Almost instantly he is told to ‘First Know Who You Are, Then Dress Yourself Accordingly.” Shades of the oracle at Delphi’s “Know Thyself!” and Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

He chooses a nice black suit, as opposed to a priest’s robe or his old police uniform, and almost instantly is forced to fight a man to the death. Turns out he’s an international assassin. He’s greeted by fire alarms ― is he near the fires of Hell? ― and we hear the Verdi’s Chorus of The Hebrew Slaves which forms a beautifully haunting motif throughout the show.

Kevin is tortured. He is asked why he gave a fake name, and he states ‘Because I don’t want anyone to know who I really am.’ He rescues a girl who is then reunited with her uncouth, horrible father. And he meets and assassinates a woman who may or may not be Patti in a great scene involving the wonderful Holy Wayne.

Later Kevin communicates with his dad via television. We’re again struck by how much Garvey Sr swears. Is it indicative of his ‘badness’? Or is it another reminder that appearances are misleading ― that sometime the crazy-seeming ones among us turn out to be the seers and visionaries ― like John the Baptist, or perhaps Miracle’s own Methuselah figure. “You’re not an assassin” says Sr contemptuously. For all his absences, profanity, possible psychosis, and violence, Garvey Sr seems to know his son the best. An international assassin is maybe what Junior wants to be, and in tying in with what the man in the hotel bar says in episode 10, it is a far more exciting life ― but it is not who he is. He is a cop. He is the line between good and evil. And he is a family man. Albeit a flawed one, like us all.

In a nice little moment Garvey is told to make like Jesus. The bird ― Erika’s bird? ― seems quite a threat to these people, and is killed by the unfortunate Virgil. And thus, a sparrow does fall, which shows this probably ain’t heaven.

The whole thing is like an Ayahuasca trip. This is Kevin’s journey to the spirit world to ‘do battle’ with forces of good and evil ― or maybe just with himself. Young Patti’s description of why Native Americans threw things into well seems to tie into this. Paul Simon himself wrote a song about Ayahuasca ― Spirit Voices. And whose song does Kevin sing in the last episode?

My pick for the line of the show, perhaps the series ― from the unnamed man on the bridge, whose role I can only guess ―“Friend... this is more real than it’s ever been.” See here for a great article about the science behind near death experiences ― they can be “more real than real life.” And read the account of a medically dead woman who heard Hotel California playing.

And from the same article : “Joseph Campbell identified and named the “monomyth” (hero’s journey) in 1949...In this structure, a protagonist is shaken out of his normal way of life by some disturbance and—often reluctantly at first, but at the urging of some kind of mentor or wise figure—strikes out on a journey to an unfamiliar realm. There he faces tests, battles enemies, questions the loyalty of friends and allies, withstands a climactic ordeal, teeters on the brink of failure or death, and ultimately returns to where he began, victorious but in some way transformed...The hero’s journey is so pervasive in storytelling because it is so aspirational. It offers the possibility of escape and transformation.” Sound familiar?

And young, innocent and pure Michael Murphy has the line to finish up ― “Holy shit!”

After a comparatively tame penultimate episode, the second season finale was again masterful. We’re back to Purgatory, where Kevin must sing karaoke to get back to the family he, in his own way, deeply loves. Garvey’s trip into this magic theatre means he must once again battle and prove his worth ― this time in a far more bland fashion. Initially, our hero is reluctant. Why? “Because it’s stupid.” His guide answers “What.. not elegant enough for you?”

Gone are the superhuman fighting acrobatics, and the excitement of international assassins; here now is a task more reminiscent of family life. Both dull and terrifying, humiliating, and stupid. Yet sometimes, when the right notes are reached, exquisite. Invasive close-ups show a man having a very painful moment of clarity as he sings the song meant for him ― Homeward Bound by Paul Simon. Check the lyrics here. Then it’s home for Garvey. As he says to the psychotic Meg, “I live here now.” Maybe this time, it will be better, and he will be present.

For a time, there were questions about if what we were seeing was reality, or rather a construct of Kevin’s disordered mind. Atheists and believers weighed in, and both explanations were plausible and accessible. I personally nearly gave up hope in the first season for this very reason ― much like in real life, if I thought there was not some kind of God at the end of it, I would nearly want to lay down and die. So where season one was bleaker than anything, and almost totally bereft of any spiritual succor, we arrive at season two’s finale with an seemingly inarguably religious element to the show. There are still the atheists, both in the show (Cora, Kevin’s ex) and beyond, who think he’s just psychotic, and were convinced (and hoped, I daresay) that his trip to to the underworld was merely a break from reality. Kevin rising out of a shallow grave must dismiss that for all but the most rabidly Hitchens-esque of viewers.

With Lost, and now The Leftovers, I’m starting to wonder if Lindelof is maybe a seer, a visionary, a prophet. I don’t think he’s superhuman, or enlightened. His Twitter escapades suggest he is painfully human. But he has now created two works of art which deal with meaning and meaninglessness, and How To Live, and that like it or not there’s probably more to life than just us. If we can hold on to hope and faith, even through painful and sometimes cruel suffering like Ecclestone’s Matt, we just may prevail, and find peace, hope, joy, and love. By season two’s end Matt is by far in the best shape. Maybe there’s a message in that. Kevin would seem to be a changed man, due to his own varieties of religious experience. By contrast, the atheists are still lost and confused.

Good shows are entertaining. Great shows can change us, and make us better people. And some shows, rarely, can bring us closer to God. I’d count Lost, season two of Fargo, and The Leftovers among them. I remember watching the finale of Lost (which I loved ― there ain’t no neat resolutions and complete answers in real life, either) and crying like a baby ― the catharsis after a long, insufferably painful bout of depression pouring out of me. And as someone who bought Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus during said depression, struggled vainly to read and enjoy it, gave up instead and at least used the term Sisyphean to impress people, I loved Betsy’s summary in Fargo when told Camus said that knowing we will die makes life absurd ― “Well, I don’t know who that is. But I’m guessing he doesn’t have a 6-year-old girl...We’re put on this earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord... Well, you try tellin’ him it was all some Frenchman’s joke.” Likewise, her husband Lou states: “Your husband, he said he was gonna protect his family no matter what. And I acted like I didn’t understand, but I do. It’s the rock we all push ― men. We call it our burden, but it’s really our privilege.”

After all is said and done, I’d argue that this is the main theme of The Leftovers ― the importance of family. It ain’t easy, it ain’t glamorous. Numerous temptations abound, from beautiful women to escape fantasies. But love is all there is. And where love is, there God is.

In short ― maybe, just maybe, it is the best show in the history of television.

Thanks to those bloggers who kept me going, and who I turned to after each episode, chief among them Kelly Braffet at Vulture and Ben Travers at Indiewire.

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