Great television is more than entertainment. The greatest TV shows of the last 25 years have not simply told great stories, but they have involved us in their telling of the story. They know how to break into our lives – our stories – to get us to invest ourselves and our emotions into the show, into its characters, and into its plot. If we are living in the Golden Age of Television right now, it’s only because of the shows that have gone before it. They have taught us all how to recognize what makes a great show and how writers can use the medium of television as a very powerful way to tell a story.
The greatest shows of the past 25 years are also products of their times. And that’s fine. That’s good. It’s part of what makes the medium of television what it is. Of course the greatest shows will also be timeless, but they are still the most impactful when they aired. Right now, there’s a number of great shows on TV, and they are everywhere. In fact, there’s so many, that it may even be hurting the medium itself right now. We simply can’t watch them all. I mean, I try, but it’s just not feasible. I don’t think I’ve ever turned on the USA Network until this summer’s premier of Mr. Robot. I binged all of Master of None in one day on Netflix. I’m even (for some reason) watching Quantico on ABC just because I liked the premise. And shows like Homeland, for all it’s ups and downs, definitely will be interesting to look back on 10 years from now. These shows are products of the time we are living. That’s true for even a show like FX’s Fargo, which this season takes place in the 70s. It’s a good time to be alive if you have time to watch TV. That’s for sure. There’s so many great shows on TV right now (and yes, there’s plenty of bad ones, too), but perhaps no show has captivated my attention more than the second season of HBO’s The Leftovers.
Season one of The Leftovers was a show that I had a hard time making my mind up about. It was intriguing, but it was also confusing and sometimes simply frustrating. But I couldn’t think of another show like it on TV. And that makes me a fan. Yes, there are definitely some places of overlap between The Leftovers and Lost. We’re dealing with some of the same writers here. So that should be of no surprise.
I didn’t know if The Leftovers was a show that would be able to get renewed. But it did, and I was so glad. I wanted to see where this would all go. Would any answers ever come? Or would we simply get more and more questions?
Well, we got more questions, but in a much more satisfying way. Like Lost and even The Walking Dead, you don’t know where the storyline is going to go the next week, or what characters were going to receive the focus of an episode. Or what characters might die (or “die”). Sometimes this can be frustrating because the plot can basically come to a standstill as the show focuses on one character and their backstory, but that’s what makes the medium of TV great in my opinion, especially for network television shows which have 20+ episodes a season. Maybe some people get frustrated by the lack of plot progress in a show like The Leftovers where there are only 10 episodes, but personally, I love it.
Many great TV shows that have pulled us into their worlds, the shows that have intertwined themselves with our emotions and expectations and hopes, have at least one defining and polarizing experimental episode. Some examples would be the fly episode in the third season of Breaking Bad, the LSD trip of Roger Sterling in the fifth season of Mad Men, the food poisoned induced dream-filled world of Tony Soprano in the season finale of the second season of The Sopranos. These are episodes that are polarizing. These are episodes where the storywriters and directors take some significant risks. It’s one of the reasons I loved every one of those episodes.
The Leftovers itself feels like a polarizing show. I’m not sure what else to compare that to. Perhaps Twin Peaks? I’m not sure. Maybe some of the later seasons of Lost? (I think we can all agree not to like the ending, though). But I’ve never been more interested in a show’s next episode since The Sopranos and the last season of Breaking Bad.
People love to hate on shows. I used to be an avid reader of the AV Club, but anymore it just seems that the writers hate on the episodes of most of the TV shows. It really confuses me as to why, but it seems to be the thing to do. People loved hating on this summer’s True Detective. It was hard to find any good reviews, except for our own Adam Robinson’s reviews here on Library of Impressions. But it’s so easy to complain about shows and to pick them apart. Sometimes the poor reviews of the shows I watch have been made up for by the incredible comment section of the AV Club. A rare thing these days. But the The Leftovers this season has been filled with mostly negative and cynical reviews and angry annoyed commenters. People “hate watch” the show simply so they can get onto the site to complain about it. So guess what I’ve stopped doing? Reading AV Club reviews. (So I guess I have to just write my own…)
The Leftovers has been a show that has transported us to another world, a world gripped with deep questions as people try to move on and let time try numb out the biggest question of all of them “Where the heck did all those people go?” And as viewers, we’ve been right there with them. We haven’t really been privy to many answers ourselves. We have no idea what is going on. As viewers we think we like to get answers to the big questions that shows like these set up. For instance Twin Peaks’s biggest question of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” We thought we wanted to know the answer until we found out. Once we found out, it was kind of like, “Ok, now what?” I think that was Lost‘s biggest realization. No, we actually don’t want the biggest question answered. Maybe some of the smaller ones, but not the biggest one. As much as we think we do. The best shows seem to know how to deal with ambiguity well. Answering all of our questions actually steals a big part of the joy of a show.
The Leftovers is a show filled with questions. And big ones. And it has kept that tension perfectly this season. It almost never answers any questions, but just creates more and more. And that’s been incredible as a viewer. For some, that is repelling. For me, that is magnetic. I want to see where the story continues to go.
That is why this most recent episode “International Assassin” is it’s riskiest episode to date. It seemingly answers some questions. It answers perhaps one of the biggest ones, “Are there forces/powers/spiritual worlds beyond that which we can see and understand?” The show was clearly dichotomized through Kevin’s experience of dealing with Patti. Is she real? Or is she a figment of his imagination?
As viewers, we were basically challenged with that question ourselves. Do we think there is something, I don’t know, spiritual going on? Or can it be neatly explained through psychology, and treated with medication? This is not an unfamiliar dichotomy – science versus faith – but it is a device where the show itself can reach into our own lives and reveal something about ourselves. What do we want the answer to be? And why?
Well that answer was seemingly answered this week. I say seemingly because I’m always cautious with supposed definite answers, especially in a show like this. There is still the chance that this was a poison induced nightmare where he filled in a dramatic storyline to connect all the dots of those that have been killed over the course of the last season and a half. I have my doubts, but at the same time you can never be too sure in a show like this. It hasn’t given us answers before now, why do we expect this has given us the answers we’ve been looking for?
People actually wrote off Kevin’s character last week. Really? REALLY?! Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead has really caused us to constantly be in fear of a main character dying. But Kevin is THE main character. There’s just no way he was done in the seventh episode of the season.
Now we’ll have to find out if Patti is indeed gone for good? Is the Jeopardy scene her final scene?
The setup for this episode was so good, the last couple episodes especially, that I had been looking forward to it all week. I knew it was going to be one of those polarizing episodes. Probably the quickest a show has done something this polarizing – the eighth episode of its second season. But I like that. We’ve been a part of this world for a while now. We want to get some handholds as to what the heck is going on. What better way to answer that sentiment with an episode where you basically are asking yourself, “What the heck is going on?” throughout the entire thing?
This is the first time I’ve ever turned off Sunday Night Football to watch a TV show. I didn’t want to wait until later. I wanted to watch it right away. And I was glued to the TV. And despite all the haters, I think this will be one of this show’s defining memorable episodes, like those others I mentioned above from some of the best televisions shows ever to air in the past 25 years. I think The Leftovers is a big part of “The Golden Age of Television” right now. People roll their eyes at the various esoteric nods to literature (Dante’s Inferno), movies (the explicit reference to The Godfather), philosophers (Epictetus), and the visual (the guilty remnant’s white attire) and audio devices (dramatic Beethoven segments surrounding scenes of violence) borrowed from cult classics like A Clockwork Orange. And that’s not to mention the nods this episode and show give to the heritage of great TV that has come before it.
People scoff at stuff like this, but I think it’s great. What, would you rather watch The Big Bang Theory? Or The Blacklist? Really? If so, stop complaining about this show. It’s not for you.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with shows like The Leftovers for me, is that their seasons are usually only ten or so episodes long. Eight, in the case of True Detective (for better or worse). Only two more episodes left in this second season. We’ve been shown a glimpse that things are not going to get any better for Kevin. That handprint is going to have dire consequences it seems. At least we still (thankfully) have the huge nagging question of “Where did the departed go?” still looming. And it now includes those girls. They weren’t in the purgatory in-between alternate world that Kevin was in. So…what does that mean?
I’m curious to see which questions will be answered and which ones will continue to go unanswered. Most likely, we’ll end up with more questions than we had before. But we have to remember as Virgil said to not think in straight lines.
This post was originally written for Library of Impressions