When TV and film deal with significant, fantastical events, they tend to go to the extreme. Apocalyptic events don’t wipe out thousands, they wipe out most of humanity; aliens don’t come to annex Belgium, they come to take over the whole world; meteors aren’t going to land on small remote islands, they’re going to level New York. That’s what sets The Leftovers apart. Instead of 98 per cent of the world suddenly vanishing, only two per cent does. That’s not enough to leave isolated communities trying to make their way through a world changed beyond recognition or to cause a mass collapse of society. The world carries on in most ways. The change is below the surface, on a purely emotional level. For those left behind, those who inexplicably lost a single loved one, the unanswerable questions leave it almost impossible to move forward, to find closure. Their world is changed beyond recognition, the mass collapse is internal.
Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, The Leftovers picks up two years after the two per cent vanish. The world is still mostly recognisable, but the differences are crucial. Kevin Garvey (Louis Theroux) is a cop in a small American town. His father has gone insane, his daughter is distant and troubled, his son has absconded to follow a self-appointed deity and his wife has joined a mysterious cult called The Guilty Remnant, a sinister, chain-smoking, white-clad bunch who believe the two per cent ascended to heaven and everyone else was judged undeserving of paradise and left behind. Kevin has no end of problems. Likewise, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose entire family – a husband and two sons – vanished at breakfast while her back was turned. She’s devoted her life to exposing frauds, those making false claims that they lost loved ones.
Even by the end of the first season, it’s impossible to tell where Lindelof and Perrotta are taking The Leftovers. That debut run follows the course of Perrotta’s book faithfully, but once the show extends past the end of the book, it becomes an increasingly ambitious exploration of the connection between two people drawn together by their lives falling apart. The dour, achingly sad first season gives way to an eccentricity that is no less moving but often incredibly funny in its surreal unpredictability. I’ll mention hotel bar karaoke, a penis scanner and the president’s identical twin brother and I’ll leave it at that.
All the show’s ambition would amount to little without its numerous, incredible performances, almost too many to mention. Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux are never less than absolutely fantastic in anything, but it’s highly unlikely that either will ever top The Leftovers. Just thinking about certain scenes from the third season creates instant lumps in the throat (and my tonsils are fine, I’ve checked). Anyone who’s watched The Handmaid’s Tale will already know that Ann Dowd is one of the finest actors ever, but even she manages to find another gear here. Scott Glenn, Liv Tyler, Christopher Eccleston, Amy Brenneman, all better than ever.
I’m a little too fond of declaring things to be “the best ever”. But I’ve had a year and a bit since the show ended to mull it over and if you put a gun to my head and forced me to pick the absolute best TV show of all time, this would be it. Clear your weekend and thank me on Monday.