Top: New York Post story, September 10, 2014
Bottom: Jill Garvey on “The Leftovers,” after and before the Sudden Departure
I was a big fan of HBO’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, which just wrapped up its first season. In the show, set in a small upstate New York town, 2% of the world’s population has suddenly disappeared, and no one knows why. A significant portion of the first season dealt with the attempts by various types of people and groups (mothers who lost their whole family, cops going crazy, cults, faith healers) to find meaning in this radically changed reality. Should the disappearance be regarded as a test of our faith? Is it just another random tragedy, just like the millions of random tragedy that happen every day, but all at once? Or is it a clear message from some higher power, a sign that we have failed, and our only hope lies in utter abnegation?
There’s been some great writing about the show. Andy Greenwald argued that it was about the experience of grief. Todd VanDerWerff sees it as a show about living with depression. And Jacon Clifton has written, fantastically, about the show’s existentialism and willingness to wrestle with questions of belief. But all these interpretations, excellent as they are, frame the show’s central metaphor as one of individual suffering: hurt, broken people, dealing with grief, depression, or meaninglessness. To me, that’s not what “The Leftovers” feels like. (The first season of In The Flesh deals, heart-rendingly, with grief and loss through the lens of zombies, and the loss there is very much individual.) Instead, the suffering on the show is collective, and public. The conflicts arise when one person interprets the meaning of the event different from other people: the Guilty Remnant insisting that the event has one specific meaning, when everyone else wanted to forget. And public grief is always political. So what are the politics of tragedy on “The Leftovers”?