“The Leftovers” and survivors

I don’t write much about television or movies. I talk about it, the shows I like, movies and such, but I don’t write about it. “Everyone’s a critic,” goes the saying and its true. I have known people who did that for a living and I’ve sat through enough premiere’s and advanced showings to know that it’s not all fun and games.

But this isn’t about television, per se. Oh, it is, to an extent. But it’s more about the human condition than anything else and our never-ending search for answers. On Sunday night, “The Leftovers,” ended. On the surface, it was a three-season disjointed, uneven show that, unless you paid very strict attention, it seemed like just that – disjointed and uneven.

But at its core, it was very human. It dealt with loss, surviving, hope and love. Oh, there have been other shows who have touched on that which we don’t know the answers to, like “The Twilight Zone” (“A Stop at Willoughby”), “The Outer Limits,” “Star Trek,” in all its incarnations have touched on religion, as did other shows through the years, like “The X-Files,” “Six Feet Under,” and most famously “Lost.”

“Lost.” Quite possibly the most maddening, bi-polar show in the history of the medium and the second-most debated finale (outside of “The Sopranos”). It was a show about a group of unlikely survivors of a plane crash somewhere over the Pacific. Except, in the end, it was all an illusion.

Which brings us to “The Leftovers.” It turned out to be the “anti-Lost” in the end. But lets start at the beginning. It was based on a book by Tom Perrotta, a best selling novelist (“Election,” “Little Children,” “The Absentee Teacher”) who took a Biblical end-times prophesy, the Rapture and turned it into a story about how people react to something traumatic. Like coming into the kitchen and finding your family gone, like Nora did.

The first season was about that trauma and dealing with it. Lets face it, we’ve all been there. My cousin died of an accidental overdose 15 years ago. The circumstances surrounding it are unimportant. A few years later, at my 50th birthday party, my step-mom made an album for me and Tom was in a couple of those pictures. I still miss him to this day. A loss of a loved one – or anyone we care deeply about – affects us in different ways. Families break up, divorce, affairs, people who you’ve known your whole life just seem to vanish.

But what if there really wasn’t an explanation. That was the premise of the show in the first season. That somehow, with no warning, two percent of the seven billion or so people on earth just go poof. No famine, no apocalyptic event, no messiah returning, nothing. What would the reaction be? The first scene, of a mother and a child walking out of a grocery store and then the child is gone, is very jarring, but it set a tone for the darkness of the first season. Trauma – and the aftermath – played itself out in the first act. We meet Nora (Carrie Coon) and Kevin (Justin Theroux), two people affected by the “Sudden Departures” in different ways. Unlike Nora’s family disappearing, Kevin, the straight arrow cop, loses his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) to a chain-smoking, all-white smock-wearing cult-who doesn’t talk, not even among themselves, group called the Guilty Remnant and their leader, Patti, (Ann Dowd) a woman with no sympathy for anyone who “lost” someone. They interrupt civic events, mock the mourners, recruit new members and attempt to burn the whole town down at the end of the first season.

The premise of “The Leftovers” while fiction, is based on facts. About two percent of the World’s population (2.2 million) die each day. Some are sudden, some drawn out. But about that number die each day. That somehow, a town in Texas, renamed “Miracle,” survived the “Sudden Departures,” isn’t a ‘miracle,’ in and of itself, but somehow convinced the believers and the gullible that is was, people flocked to this town in season two, where a “Woodstock”- like refugee camp has been set up and you need special permission to live in the town. Kevin and Nora, now a couple, albeit a shaky one, purchase a house there after Nora’s brother, Matt, a misguided minister, moves there and his comatose wife suddenly comes back to life as if nothing changed, but of course, it did.

“You’re here and then you’re not.” A few years ago, I read an essay by a writer who, as a young man with a young son, lost his dad to a heart attack. Having to explain it to his then-eight-year-old son, who asked “what happened to grandpa?” He grappled with trying to explain it. That he came up with that simple answer to his child, trying to explain the complexities of life and mortality in terms a child could understand – hell, that anyone could understand, is still not the whole story.

We all have a beginning and an ending. Helen Keller observed that “security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

When we understand that there’s no such thing as security, we take risks. In the end, we are all survivors, until we’re not. When Nora, at the beginning of season three, tells Kevin “I’m going to Australia for a few days,” we understand the truth.

First of all, no one goes to Australia “for a few days.” This isn’t a trip to Chicago or Minneapolis. It is a long journey and I’ve done it. You don’t go there for a few days. Weeks, months is more like it. Nora (and eventually Kevin) went there to find (eventually) their destinies.

When they (and others around them) realize the truth, through their own experiences, that there is no security in life, everyone’s experiences and recollections of those experiences are their own and unique to that person’s psyche. A shared experience, a trip, ballgame, concert, wedding, funeral, friendship, relationship, marriage, divorce, birth and death, are singular events shared differently.

In the end, after all the denials, the lies, the reunion, after the stories, when Kevin says to Nora, “I believe you,” even though the story she told him, about seeing her family back in Long Island is probably just bullshit, is enough for both to realize that, finally, their trauma is over. Even in some far off place like Nowhere-but-here, Australia.

Life is indeed an adventure. It is not linear. There is no straight line to get to where we eventually go. We have experiences. We tell stories. It is messy and screwy and you lose people along the way, sometimes without explanation. Whether you gain the wisdom of understanding the randomness of life is what The Leftovers reminded us of.

2 Responses to ““The Leftovers” and survivors”

  1. Bob Says:

    “What’s it all about Alfie.” Bob

  2. Dan Riley Says:

    One of your best.

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