It’s that time again, folks. It’s time to see where I turned for an entertaining break during the last month. Teaching at a trimester school, I just hit the end of my grading term so I had A LOT to do and pulling my attention away from all that was a steep challenge. It also proved important. Running on so little sleep for two weeks isn’t a great idea (mid-thirties Michael needs to accept he can’t do what mid-twenties Michael could). So any distraction capable of giving me a mental break from my mammoth to-grade pile was nothing short of salvific. The winner this time around, the one pop culture force able to break through the all that, was HBO’s The Leftovers (2014-2017).
This three season show was based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, who served as one of the showrunners for the series. I can’t take credit for stumbling on the show myself. (When can I ever take credit for finding a show? I feel like we’ve established this in this series, I’m not good at TV and I pretty much only watch something if someone recommends it and a) the premise really captures my attention, b) they are SUPER insistent (like, unrelentingly so) that I check it out, or c) both “a” and “b.”) This was another recommendation. But, once I started, I was immediately intrigued.
It’s worth noting, especially after the high horse I was on in my Outlander post about loving the book series so much I’d never even consider watching the Starz show, I’ve never read Perrotta’s novel. Nope, I just jumped into the HBO series. But I didn’t know it was a book until I started. Still, you know what? I’d’ve probably just started the show, anyway. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!
The show begins with 2% of the world’s population mysteriously and simultaneously disappearing. The narrative then jumps ahead three years to explore how the world is trying to cope in the wake of the “Sudden Departure.” It’s set primarily in the small town of Mapleton, NY and follows Police Chief Kevin J. Garvey Jr. (Justin Theroux), Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) who lost her husband and both children in the event, and her brother the Episcopal priest Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston (the Doctor!!!!)). We’re also introduced to the Guilty Remnant, a white-clad cult of some kind whose members say nothing and smoke all the time, showing up everywhere so people “don’t forget.” It’s all pretty nihilistic but in a “super creepy/sad” way not an “edgy/cool we’re pseudo-challenging the establishment” way. Then there’s a cult led by this guy named Wayne who can, like, hug all your troubles away? And he’s got a thing for teenage girls? And I think they maybe think he’s the messiah?
I’m being vague because a) I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone – I’ve been told this show is “all about the ending…and [in watching it] you are on your way to three act perfection,” and b) I haven’t even finished the first season yet myself. C’mon! Don’t judge me! I just told you I’ve been doing a ton of grading. I know Season One is only ten episodes but still. Grading takes time. ANYWAY I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you so I guess you should maybe THANK ME instead of JUDGING ME for only being part of the way through the first season. You’re welcome world. Like I said, I’m not good at TV.
Moving on though, the plot isn’t really what I’m writing about here. There are plenty of pieces by plenty of authors (who have, you know, finished the show) to explore the plot. Rather, at this moment, I’m much more intrigued by where this show has taken my thoughts. With end-of-term grading, I haven’t been able to make much progress (yet) through the show itself. But I can’t stop thinking about it. I’d find my mind drifting from the stack of essay exams or reflection papers in front of me and returning to The Leftovers time and again.
I can’t stop thinking about what it would be like if this really happened. But I’m not thinking about it in a vague, general sense. No, I’m thinking about what life would be like if I really woke up one day and 2% of the world’s population was really gone…and then I start thinking about my loved ones. Who would hurt the most if I lost them? Is there anyone I couldn’t stand to lose? Like someone whose unexpected and unexplained disappearance would leave me unable to move forward? And who would it hurt less to lose? Who are the people who would feel more like a little speedbump in my day-to-day life as opposed to a world-destroying cataclysmic earthquake?
To be direct, this show has left me unconsciously ranking my loved ones.
How messed up is this?? I feel like such a horrible person!! I kind of am a horrible person! I’m ranking my loved ones in my head and debating how bad I’d feel if a mysterious, supernatural force took them from me. Who does that?!!? Who ranks their loved ones???
I need to underscore I’m not doing this intentionally. My mind just sort of drifts there. But still, it kind of makes me feel like a huge @$$.
My macabre musings on The Leftovers doesn’t end there, though. I can’t help but think of the other side of this too. If I randomly disappeared, how would that affect my loved ones? Who would miss me the most? Who would struggle the hardest if I was just ripped away? And for whom would my disappearance be little more than a speed bump in the process of their life? Basically, how important am I to the people I know and love?
So this is just as dark as the first subject; it’s like meditating on my own untimely death. But it takes the macabre nature of those reflections above and adds a healthy dose of narcissism and self-importance. Ugh! What the heck, me? What in the actual heck??
And these reflections go far. I find myself drifting off and getting lost in my imagination. I imagine hearing the news (or someone hearing the news about me) and I play out how it would affect me (or them). What would my immediate reaction be? What would come in the hours and days to follow? What shape would me grief take? How would I begin to move on? Could I begin to move on? What would that look like? Do I go to work? Do I stay home? Do I reach out? Do I withdraw? I mean I am going DEEP into these imaginative ponderings. Sometimes I go so far inside myself I start to feel a little of those pangs of loss – a shortness of breath, maybe tears starting to well. Then that sort of rings me back into reality and I pull myself out of the abyss of dark imagining into which I had descended.
It’s weird. Like it’s weird.
I’ve imagined whole futures where I abandon my life in unreconcilable grief and disappeared myself, going somewhere to be alone with my misery and pain. I’ve imagined futures with a long struggle back to functioning, to putting my life back together. I’ve imagined who I’d turn to for help and how they’d be dealing with the losses in their life. I’ve imagined what it would be like if the people I’d normally turn to had disappeared, too. I’ve also imagined what it’d be like to lose no one significantly close to me. How would I live with that? How would I live in a world of bone-deep grief and unanswerable questions when my life and loved ones are, more or less, intact? And I’ve imagined the opposite of that. What if, like Nora, I lost all of the people closest to me? Could I even begin to function in the way she has? I don’t know where her story goes but I already presume she’s stronger than me. Or at least she’s stronger than me in most of my imagined scenarios.
So yeah, thank you The Leftovers for some truly fucked up thoughts. And thoughts I can’t shake! My mind just keeps going there! I don’t want to think about this! And I certainly don’t want to feel bad about myself for how my mind begins categorizing my loved ones or dwelling on who would miss me the most.
However, if I’m being honest, this really speaks to the caliber of the show. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t even finished the first season. But I can’t stop thinking about it. More than that, I can’t stop inserting myself into the show’s narrative. Even when I don’t want to be, I find myself being drawn into it. Now that grading is (thankfully!) behind me, that hasn’t changed. I still find myself contemplating these macabre thoughts in between my classes, as I drive, or even doing the most banal of daily chores like washing the dishes. Clearly, it’s captivating.
To me, that seems to speak to the quality of The Leftovers. If it can so totally capture my imagination that I’m not just always thinking about the show but my imagination is constantly pulling me into it (often against my will) and thinking through a myriad of possible situations and the myriad of possible reactions I could have to those situations, it has to be an amazing show. Like, I’ve been intrigued by episode one but, writing about all this, I think the show’s obviously even better than I thought it was at first.
I think I may treat myself to a little binge-watching now that’s grading behind me, too. If I’m already this emotionally invested in the story and if this show is truly “three act perfection,” then I’m more than a little excited to see how it ends! Wish me luck, binging tends not to be a specialty of mine. But I’m hoping The Leftovers pulls me along. I need to know how this story ends, no matter how dark a contemplative road it drags me down along the way.
Michael J. Miller writes and rambles about comic books and comic book movies (not to mention Doctor Who and Star Wars and whatever else randomly pops into his head) on his blog My Comic Relief. He teaches theology at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, PA – including classes on Star Wars as modern mythology and the intersection of comic books and social justice. Should it be your thing, you can also find him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief but he tweets sporadically at best because social media can be exhausting.