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One Good Thing: The existential horror and hope of The Leftovers, the perfect show for 2021

It’s a great choice for your first binge-watch of the year.

A woman in a white robe walks toward a church.
Members of a doomsday cult await the end in the final season of The Leftovers.
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.

I’m not here to tell you what to do. It’s your life, you should do what you want. But listen: 2021 should be the year you watch HBO’s magnificent, soaring series The Leftovers.

Across three seasons and 28 hour-long episodes, The Leftovers explores the aftermath of an unexplained event that caused 2 percent of the world’s population to vanish into thin air. The series begins three years after that so-called Sudden Departure, which inevitably left so many of the people who remained on Earth stricken with grief, unable to move forward.

By that point, much of the planet has slowly but surely pushed beyond the existential uncertainty caused by such a strange disappearance. But many, including all of the characters The Leftovers follows across its three seasons, have not moved on. And they may never be able to.

The series, which aired from 2014–2017, was co-created by Damon Lindelof (of Lost and Watchmen fame) and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel the series is based on). Lindelof and Perrotta’s shared affection for psychologically weighty storytelling and ambitious themes meshes beautifully in stories about tiny humans scrabbling for meaning amid an enormous, uncaring universe.

The show also boasts a top-notch cast, including Justin Theroux, the magnetic Carrie Coon (in her breakout TV role), and Christopher Eccleston. Their central characters are joined in season two by new ones, played by powerhouse performers like Regina King and Jovan Adepo.

But The Leftovers is so depressing, right? If you’ve heard anything about the show at all, you’ve heard that.

Allow me to suggest: That conventional wisdom is not as true as it might seem.

To watch The Leftovers in 2021 might seem masochistic. We are, after all, living amid an event that is killing a significant portion of the world’s population. Even if The Leftovers’s central idea is more humane — we don’t know where the missing people went, and they may still be alive — it still takes its time to live inside the pain of those left behind. The series’s characters struggle under the weight of so much pointless loss. And the uncertainty is almost worse. There is no meaning to what has happened, and human institutions founder in the face of trying to make sense of the senseless.

All of the above is especially true for the show’s first season. I adore that season of television, but it can be rough sledding — “difficult” to get through. There are a handful of episodes in its first half that might try the patience of those who are less immediately invested than I am in stories 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 the last 10 years.

The common gripe against The Leftovers, especially 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 to be, at the very least, mordantly funny, blessed with a darkly humorous streak that makes its more despairing portions slide by.

But sure, I get it. The Leftovers does not promise easy viewing. Its pleasures, such as they are, are 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, pleasant TV fodder for a lot of people.

And yet as the show progressed deeper into its run, for me it became maybe the most optimistic show of its era 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. Those left behind were often stricken with grief, unable to move forward. 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.

Throughout The Leftovers, 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-sorta think he’s the second coming of Jesus. (Maybe a little bit?)

The series concentrates on guiding its characters toward wholeness, if not happiness. They might remain deeply sad or frustrated or angry, but they’re 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, 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 have just emerged from a year that feels, to so many of us, like more of an ending than a beginning. Political polarization has us at each other’s throats, and the threat of climate change looms. And that’s before I touch on the global pandemic.

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 works so well because it focuses not on the flood but on the Ark, on the people still 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.

The Leftovers is available to stream on HBO and HBO Max. There are 28 episodes, each about an hour long. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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