Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers began airing on HBO in 2014, and quietly concluded its stellar run in 2017, after three years of fantastic, thought-provoking TV. But despite it being dubbed one of the greatest TV shows of all time at its conclusion, even two years on, The Leftovers is rarely discussed. With average ratings for its original airing and poor word of mouth, The Leftovers has become one of the greatest TV shows that nobody ever talks about.
The Leftovers is based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta (with whom the series was developed), and it follows the lives of various individuals in the wake of a global, catastrophic event that resembles the biblical rapture.
2 per cent of the world’s population suddenly disappear with no warning. Rumours spread that everyone who witnessed the disappearances started to go mad, and people are left questioning their faith in god and the universe.
The disappearances are rare, but they impact the entire world, and the people that are left behind — “the leftovers” — struggle with what the event, known as the “Sudden Departure”, means to them. For some, like Nora Durst, it means losing their entire family. For others, it’s dealing with the loss of friends and neighbours. It’s never explicitly stated that the devastation is the biblical Rapture, but its ambiguity causes dissension among the leftovers, and leads directly to the rise of a terrorist group known as the Guilty Remnant at the opening of the story.
The Guilty Remnant is a non-violent group that believes life — all life — doesn’t matter, that individual pain doesn’t matter, and that there is no greater meaning in the universe. They believe that God has abandoned humanity. Members of the organisation are required to give up their personal possessions and are forced into a vow of silence. They represent the grief and loss of the town, and feature heavily in the first and second seasons as spectres of guilt that haunt the main protagonists.
The birth of the Guilty Remnant plays a large part in the slow, spiralling madness of series lead, police officer Kevin Garvey, played by Justin Theroux in what, really, should be considered his defining performance. (Theroux is more widely known for his comedic performances, as well as his screenplays — he wrote the middling Iron Man 2.) Kevin’s wife, Laurie, becomes part of the Guilty Remnant soon after the “Sudden Departure”, forcing Kevin to confront the reality that he’s losing control of his life.
This, coupled with witnessing the Sudden Departure firsthand, sends Kevin down a path of conspiracy and madness that leads to him losing time and sleepwalking to strange places. In one episode, he wakes having kidnapped and half-killed the leader of the Guilty Remnant.
There’s also the small matter of the fact that he appears unable to die. Throughout the course of the series, he’s drowned, shot, suffocated and poisoned, but none of these acts lead to his death. What’s going on with Kevin is a mystery that features throughout the entire series, and is only ever vaguely answered. But Kevin’s story, while compelling, isn’t the central focus of the story.
It’s not a superhero story, it’s not a Jesus narrative (although this does come into play in season three) and it’s not a fantasy — it’s simply about people, and their struggles to exist in a world that’s quickly losing meaning. It’s about people who are lost, and what they can find in the comfort of others.
Ultimately, Kevin crosses paths with Nora, sending them on a journey through co-dependence, toxicity and pseudo-love. Life is never simple, and The Leftovers explores the messiness of humanity in that light. The Leftovers is powerful because it’s so real, and it’s buoyed by the performances of the entire cast.
Justin Theroux, as mentioned earlier, does a swift 180 from his comedy roots here, portraying Kevin as a broken, lonely and desperate character. He’s aided by Carrie Coon’s incredibly vulnerable Nora, as well as by stunning turns from Liv Tyler as lost soul Meg, and Christopher Eccleston as devoted priest Matt Jamison.
The combination of shocking performances and a genuinely brilliant script makes The Leftovers an original, and consistently compelling story. Each season is thematically different, but its characters, and the journey they go on, are at the heart of its narrative. The thread of magical realism that runs through the story is also an important element of what makes The Leftovers so special.
If nothing else is spoken of The Leftovers, what it will most be remembered for is the phenomenal season two episode, “International Assassin”, an episode that defines The Leftover‘s unique approach.
This episode is the peak of what The Leftovers accomplished, and is a standalone episode that features Kevin as he journeys (whether by dreams, hallucination or in real-life is unclear) to a mysterious hotel, residing in a plane known as “The Other Place”, where he takes on the role of the titular international assassin. It’s a surrealist episode that may or may not be real, but at its conclusion, is the most heartbreaking and poignant episode of the show.
It was an episode that divided fans at the time because it was so different to the show’s main narrative, but it proved what The Leftovers and Lindelof could do when the reigns were off. It proved that The Leftovers was important, and that it had important things to say.
The Leftovers is a powerful TV show because it pushed at what the drama genre could achieve. Its stories are meaningful because its characters are relatable and real. Its entire run was bold and experimental, and it asked big questions of its audience. It’s a TV show that deserves to be talked about more often than it is, and should rightfully be remembered as one of the greatest TV shows of the modern era.