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The Leftovers is one of the best TV shows ever made

You can watch all of HBO’s grim but optimistic series right now. Well? What are you waiting for?

The Leftovers
Kevin Garvey: unlikely savior.
HBO
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When I finished the series finale of The Leftovers, I briefly thought about a career change.

Not just a career change actually. A whole life change. I thought about moving to the middle of nowhere and becoming a farmer or something. I couldn’t imagine a way forward for television, the medium I love so much, after watching that finale. It was so good, so note-perfect, so everything I want in a show. TV was done! Something else would have to fill the gap.

About 30 minutes later, I realized that I probably wasn’t going to become a farmer. But the feeling The Leftovers had evoked in me persisted. I was satisfied, full up on the show’s particular blend of sorrow and joy. I was convinced that if I never see another TV show I felt as passionately about, well, that would be okay, because I’d had The Leftovers.

Inevitably, there will be other TV shows that make me feel this way. I’ve had this feeling several times before, when Mad Men ended and when Deadwood ended and when certain seasons of Community ended, among many others. I’m sure that when The Americans ends in 2018 or when Halt and Catch Fire ends later this summer, I’ll feel much the same, and then I’ll move on.

But we TV critics too rarely pause at the end of a show we loved — no, not just loved but LOVED — to properly convey our passion. The Leftovers, to me, is one of the best TV shows that ever there was, and I think I can tell you why, hopefully without spoiling too much.

The Leftovers is an open door to a lot of stuff we don’t like to talk about

Pop culture functions as a kind of subconscious for what humans care about. That’s why I find it so fascinating to watch it fluctuate and change, to observe how it both is molded by our shifting social codes and actively molds them. Yet you have to be careful in how you talk about this aspect of pop culture, because everybody’s subconscious is a little bit different, and a meaning I ascribe to something may not be a meaning you would ascribe to it at all.

So I always think of that meaning as a little door in the back of the work. You watch the TV show or the movie, or listen to the album, or whatever, and you can talk about the work itself — the plot elements and images and directorial choices that go into making it.

But always, in the back, there’s a door to everything else, all of the cultural forces and psychological implications and deeper meanings you can find if you go digging. Open the door a little bit, and you might take a peek at those things. Throw it open wide, and you reveal just as much about yourself and what you value as you do the work itself.

A woman in a white robe walks toward a church.
I wish we’d all been ready.
HBO

What made The Leftovers special — and what most of my favorite TV shows have in common, come to think of it — is that it forced you to open that door and leave it that way permanently. It was incredibly comfortable letting you struggle with its implications, rather than providing tidy summations. Even when it answered its biggest questions, it did so in a way that suggested the answers might be bullshit, because what matters isn’t the answer, per se, but whether you believe the person who’s offering it to you.

The Leftovers, then, is the first TV show I can think of that actively engages with a world where the uncertainty that is core to simply being alive has caused a lot of us to carve out our own completely separate experiences of reality. The series begins with the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population, but its objective isn’t to answer the question of where those people went. Whatever the answer is, regardless of whether it’s simple or mind-bogglingly complex, will pale in comparison to the fact that when millions of people just up and vanished one day, everyone on Earth was reminded that much of existence is basically random, meaningless, and out of our control. What do you do when you’re confronted with that fact?

Well, you start trying to rationalize. You try to put a narrative on what happened. You find an explanation, whether scientific or religious or something else altogether, and you try to fill in the gap between your need for control and your complete and utter powerlessness. Everybody alive can relate to the feeling of wanting to be in charge of our lives, only to realize that the systems that surround us are waiting to idly flick a fingernail and send us ricocheting through the rapids of chance.

The Leftovers’ first season has gained a reputation for being “difficult” to get through, and I’ll admit there are a handful of episodes in its first half that can try the patience of those who are less immediately invested than I am in tales of spiritual seekers realizing that the universe doesn’t care about them in the slightest. But it’s also the season that best underlines why The Leftovers is one of the definitive TV shows of this era, a show about how poorly human beings react when they realize their own agency is a joke.

Once you get to seasons two and three, The Leftovers suggests its own sorts of answers

The common gripe against The Leftovers, especially with regard to its first season, is that it’s too depressing, too grief-stricken. I’ve always struggled with that criticism, because I’ve always found the show, at the very least, mordantly funny, blessed with a darkly humorous streak that made its more despairing portions slide by.

But, sure, I get it. The Leftovers never allowed for easy viewing. Its pleasures, such as they were, were almost about grappling with the unanswerable questions in life — not just “Is there a God?” but “Is there a purpose to any of this?” That’s not light Sunday night fodder for a lot of people.

The Leftovers
The spiritual questing was always going to drive some viewers away.
HBO

And yet as the show progressed deeper into its run, it became, for me, maybe the most optimistic show on television, because it stared into uncertainty, into darkness, and insisted that we would figure out how to make our own light if we found ourselves stranded. The final two images of the series (and I promise these aren’t spoilers) are two characters holding hands and then doves returning to their roost — which if you know your Noah’s Ark is a sign that the end of the world is beginning to end.

The genius of The Leftovers’ third season comes from the way it’s structured as a sequence of cascading series finales. Characters find a way toward closure, then fall away from the story as those who continue to struggle with their powerlessness attempt to forcefully attach meaning to their lives — to the degree that one character starts to kinda maybe think he’s the second coming of Jesus. Maybe a little bit?

The series doesn’t focus on bringing its plot to a conclusion; instead, it concentrates on guiding its characters toward wholeness, if not happiness. They might remain deeply sad, or frustrated, or angry, but they are allowed a moment of kindness or gratitude, a moment that pushes them to extend the same to others. If life is meaningless, if nothing has a purpose, then all we have is what we can give to each other. I can’t think of many messages more optimistic, or necessary, than that.

We are living in a time that feels, to almost all of us, like more of an ending than a beginning. Politics has us at each other’s throats, and the planet is burning itself alive, and it’s difficult to imagine a humanity that exists in 2100 and isn’t somehow a completely different species.

We have made it to the future, and it’s trying to kill us. But it’s also always the future, and life is always trying to kill us. The world is always ending, but it’s also always beginning.

Struggling against the meaningless nature of life is important, but so is remembering that meaning is what we make of it and that we can create meaning for each other. The Leftovers worked so well because it focused not on the flood, but on the Ark, on the people left aboard, watching the skies for a sign of something new. There’s all this water, all around us — but look at us, lucky us, we have a boat.

You can watch all of The Leftovers on HBO Go right now, and you should. I’ll wait.

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