The Brilliance of 'The Leftovers' Hangs in the Balance

'The Leftovers' is stunning, spooky and funny - but can it stick the landing?

Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers,' season 3.
Van Redin/HBO / yes

I’m going to be pissed about many things if I die tomorrow, especially that 12-month gym membership I just bought. But I’m also going to be bummed that I never caught up with “The Americans,” never got to visit “Silicon Valley” or “Atlanta,” never got to say goodbye to “Jane the Virgin.”

The problem is, there is just too much good television. I could easily reel off 20 shows I want to watch, and that’s not even including classic old series I’d love to revisit (“The West Wing” seems particularly attractive at this moment in time). Then there are the numerous foreign shows that sound enticing – like “Cardinal” (Canada), “Clan” (Belgium) and “Black Lake” (Sweden). And when countries like Canada, Belgium and Sweden are producing must-see TV, you really know the paradigm has shifted.

It was FX Networks President John Landgraf who first identified the problem in August 2015, when he coined the phrase “peak TV.” He was specifically referring to the problem of finding enough compelling stories and talent to fill the airwaves (there were over 450 scripted shows on U.S. television in 2016), but peak TV also creates a huge problem for the viewer: there aren’t enough hours in the day to watch it all.

What about cloning, I hear you ask. Good question, but if the 1996 movie “Multiplicity” taught us anything, it’s that Michael Keaton is far too creepy to star in a romantic comedy, and that your clone will eventually rise up and fight you for control of the remote (and Andie MacDowell).

I was slightly relieved when I heard that American TV writers are considering strike action this year, and that this could have a major impact on forthcoming shows. The immediate thought was, “Great, take as long as you can, I’m already up to my eyeballs in box sets.” But then I remembered these guys have already been kicked in the residuals by the networks, and that a long, drawn-out process will hurt them even more.

So I have found a better solution: Hollywood should introduce the shmita cycle and lie fallow for one year in every seven (ah, if only there were a few Jews in Tinseltown to explain the concept to their colleagues). In fact, it doesn’t have to be all of Hollywood. The big four networks can still keep producing their syndication-eyeing trash (“The Blacklist: Redemption”? Call me back when it’s about a BDS activist who makes aliyah) and compensate the cable networks, Amazon, Netflix, etc., for temporarily downing tools and letting us all catch up. (And if you think it’s bad now, wait until the internet of things is used to broadcast shows: Kellyanne Conway will be able to watch her microwave while it’s watching her.)

I’d like to blame Peak TV for the rise of binge-watching, but while the sheer quantity of shows is undoubtedly a factor, I suspect this particular trend is driven more by FoMO (Fear of Missing Out). Everyone’s talking about “Stranger Things”? Let’s watch it. What, now they’re talking about “Better Things”? Quick, pass the remote and the Provigil.

You might think binge-watching is the only way to get through all of the shows out there, but I’d argue it’s not worth it. Bingeing is not a pleasurable activity (for proof, count the number of times “binge” appears on a restaurant menu), and good television deserves to be savored just as much as tasty food.

Long-awaited redemption

That’s why, despite its binge-worthy name, “The Leftovers” (HOT HBO, Tuesdays at 22:00; Yes Oh, Mondays at 22:00; first two seasons are available on VOD), should be consumed slowly. Although the first season aired in the summer of 2014, it was only when U.S. reviews for season three started materializing this spring – all basically saying it was the best thing since sliced artisan sourdough bread – that I realized I needed to see it (coughs, “FoMO”).

And yes, “The Leftovers” is stunning. Sure, some scenes can make you feel like Homer Simpson after he sees his first “Mr. Plow” ad (“Dad, was that your commercial?” “I don’t know!”), but each of the 22 episodes I’ve just seen have a haunting quality (well, maybe not the overly kooky episode eight in season two, when you keep waiting for the Dancing Dwarf from “Twin Peaks” to appear).

Damon Lindelof is the creative force behind the show, and this is his long-awaited redemption following “Lost.” Despite working on that show with J.J. Abrams and Carlton Cuse, he became the one most associated with it. Indeed, he’s probably been pursued by more pitchfork-bearing townsfolk than Shrek after the response to that show’s polarizing ending (“polarizing” being the kindest way of saying it sucked).

Now, as “The Leftovers” approaches its final moments (it’s halfway through the final season of eight episodes), we can only hope Lindelof has internalized what every pilot knows: no one ever talks about the great takeoff and turbulence-free flight if you crash upon landing.

This column is aimed at anyone who, like me, hadn’t seen this strange but hypnotic show. Lindelof has taken Tom Perrotta’s intimate novel – about a Rapture-like event that sees 2 percent of the world’s population (“140 million souls”) depart the planet on October 14 – and turned it into something of, well, biblical proportions. Pillar saints, sacrificial goats, four horsewomen of the Apocalypse, resurrections, miracles – it’s all here.

Yet despite the theological mythology, “The Leftovers” has also grown increasingly funny as it has progressed, reaching its own TV peak in season three with a great sight gag about the “departed” Gary Busey (as someone says in season one, “I get the pope. But Gary fucking Busey? How does he make the cut?”).

The first season is set in the suburban community of Mapleton, New York, three years after the Rapture-like event (unlike in the fundamentalist Christian belief, people don’t ascend to the heavens here but simply disappear, like a David Blaine trick). One brilliant element of the novel – the Guilty Remnant, a group of white-clad, chain-smoking cultists who seek to remind the world of what happened on October 14, in increasingly disturbing ways – is retained. But the Department of Sudden Departure is a new invention and helps turn the show into a moving depiction of faith, loss and addiction.

Season two is a complete reset, moving to the (fictional) town of Jarden, Texas, which became a pilgrimage site when none of its 9,261 residents were lifted on D-Day. Things take a turn for the mumbo jumbo here, but that somehow makes the show even more riveting.

Season three goes even farther afield, to Australia, and is set in the weeks before the end of the “seven years of tribulation,” when some Christians believe a second Rapture will occur and Jesus will return to Earth.

“The Leftovers” is a show that will make you laugh, cry and get seriously spooked, all in the space of about 50 minutes. Despite being a late convert, I will be extremely sorry to see it depart. Now we need to pray that Lindelof manages to stick this particular landing.