It's a shame, because there's 33% of an interesting show there.
All images courtesy HBO
Last night, I finished a torturous, on-again, off-again love affair with TV’s most overrated prestige drama, The Leftovers. I think it ended on a very high note, a far more satisfying scene than I had dared hope so, considering how disastrously season three had gone for me.
My time with the show had been a roller coaster. I hate-watched the first season, rejecting the entire fundamental thesis that, if 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappeared, that batshit cults would pop up all over the place and things like, for example, men who think that their hugs heal pain would impregnate underage Asian-American women en masse. The show was about 85% absurdity, with 15% actors making sad faces to piano music.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the human world is accurately represented by that level of absurdity. It just doesn’t typically come packaged this preciously.
That was significantly toned down in the series’—excellent—second season, which functioned more like a thriller, with plenty of pseudo-mythical bits mixed in. In season two, the blend was correct. Plenty of elements made no sense, but there were compelling characters and something like a pace to the mystery that kept me hooked.
Season three went completely off the rails early on and never looked back. But not in a fun way. It was a long, hard slog through 8 hours of people I increasingly disliked doing increasingly inane, harmful things. I won’t belabor it, but I really just wanted something—anything—to hang on to. Someone to root for. An end to the increasingly batshit antics punctuated by, you guessed it, sad music.
I wasn’t looking for any answers. I didn’t give the first shit what had caused the great departure. I’m here for the themes. I’m here to watch people try and figure out how to live after a big, terrible thing occurred, living in the compromised times that I do.
It seemed to me, however, that despite that implied thematic goal, the showrunners really just wanted to see how far they could desperately stretch the absurdities of the show, of the actions of their beloved weirdos, instead of really trying to say anything meaningful about their suffering or coping mechanisms.
I’m a fan of hard tonal shifts, camp, and absurdity, so, that’s not the problem. I watched Rocky Horror for the umpteenth time this weekend (for a friend’s first viewing), and I fell in love all over again with its weirdness, with how queer and transgressive and bananas it was, for a mainstream movie from over forty years ago.
But see, there is a fucking point to Dr. Frank N. Furter dressing up all his new friends in fishnets and heels for a late movie dance number. It says something about sexual norms and freedom from repressive culture.
But there really isn’t a strong point to some of the most glaring imagery in The Leftovers. Like an older white man dressing in Aboriginal garb, camping out on sacred ground, and singing tribal songs. There’s a whole episode of inane bullshit like this and worse from this dude. All of it is in service of the “the world has gone crazy! Here’s how he’s coping!” narrative, but it’s so eyeball-clawingly stupid (and in this particular case, ridiculously racist) that it’s hard to watch.
Maybe that’s the point? To annoy and “challenge” the viewer on some level? To what end, though?
It's so frustrating because there is so clearly potential here. There was a whole season that worked—that found the right balance among absurdity and mysticism and sadness. I applaud efforts to do things differently, to try and reach for the proverbial stars, but holy shit, this wasn't it, folks.
Maybe the showrunners could take some cues from MachineGames when it comes to using shocking and absurd imagery to actual effect.
I will continue to hold the second season in high regard, and to enjoy the last moments of the finale. Maybe I’ll try to pretend that’s all that’s ever existed of The Leftovers.
How about you, readers? Is there a piece of media that hits the sweet spot of absurdity for you—or misses the mark, by a wide margin? Let's take it to the forums!