Touching the audience- Why “The Leftovers” Takes Takes The Cake
By Theon Mafuta
As soon as a TV show plays its final scene and cuts to black, I find myself staring into my reflection on my laptop screen with the feeling of emptiness resting comfortably in my stomach.
You spend over five, six or even ten plus hours with people who don’t exist but in those hours they’re real. They’re everything.
The best TV shows often stick with you and make you suffer for loving the characters and the world they’ve constructed. They touch the audience.
I’d like to believe that most of the television shows that I label ‘great’ do two things in particular:
1. They tend to reveal something about you or a universal truth about life.
In an interview with TIFF, Pete Docter (CEO of Pixar/director of ‘UP’) recalls meeting Joe Grant (A senior writer/animator from Walt Disney Studios) and bombarding him with multiple questions on Disney’s creative process.
Dropping some valuable gems, Grant replies to Docter with the following questions: ‘What are you giving the audience to take home?’ and ‘what are they going to think about in two months that’s in your film?’
Although Grant specifically talks about films, I believe his words are still applicable to any creative outlets. You’ve always got to remember the message you are trying to communicate to the audience through your work because frankly, that’s what makes it yield a lot more value. Your message should always be true to you. After all, creativity is self-expression.
2. They evoke strong emotions whether that’s sadness, laughter, cringe and hatred
In ‘Poetics’, Aristotle coins the term ‘emotional catharsis’ when talking about his interpretation of Greek theatre’s purpose in society. ‘Emotional catharsis’ refers to the act of purging emotions. Aristotle proposes that the best pieces of theatre sparked strong emotions from the audience. His ideas (not all) still ring true today.
HBO’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel ‘The Leftovers’ bursts my checklist by completely shattering all my expectations. ‘The Leftovers’ is a drama about two percent of the world mysteriously disappearing (or blipped out for any Marvel fans). Tom Perrotta cites the biblical rapture as inspiration for the concept. It’s inarguably better than the novel as Damon Lindelof successfully manages to surpass the source material.
Let’s head back to 2004 when Lindelof teamed up with J.J. Abrams to create ‘Lost’. The premiere of Lost garnered over 18.6 million viewers alone when first aired on ABC in the US and further went on to receive critical acclaim as the show continued, winning 10 Emmys.
So what’s exactly the pressing issue here?
As the show came to end, viewers expected most of the loose threads to be tied. But when the final episode of lost aired and viewers were left disappointed and… lost.
Why? Mystery box writing.
Mystery box writing is a technique popularised by J.J Abrams. It’s when you set up a mystery with no intention of answering it, similar to a mysterious box the contents inside will always remain unknown. There is no doubt mystery box writing can be done successfully when used on a small scale; It just can’t be driving the plot of the show. Mystery box writing can be received by audiences as a cop-out as you weren’t able to come up with a satisfying answer or any answer at all. I don’t want to speak for all audiences but it’s safe to say mystery box writing is ultimately a flawed concept that rarely ever works well…
Except if it’s ‘The Leftovers’.
Let me explain. ‘The Leftovers’ tackles the heaviest themes such as religion, mental health and loneliness head-on, pulling no punches. There’s a reason why it’s known as the ‘bleakest’ show ever. It’s just so depressing and mentally draining. This is a fair warning to those who may want to give it a watch, I wouldn’t suggest you watch the show if you’re someone suffering from depression or grieving. The show isn’t about who’s missing, it’s about the people that are ‘leftover’. It’s about grief, once the main cast moves on from it the show ends. At its core ‘The leftovers’ is still sort of a ‘mystery-box-esque’ show. But Lindelof learns from his previous mistakes by transcending the mystery box framework. Instead of providing unclear answers, The Leftovers gifts the audience the option to choose their answer regardless of their religious beliefs there’s truly something for everyone, depending on your outlook on life the ending is either depressing or hopeful.
Through the characters, Lindelof acknowledges that grief isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ kind of situation. Everyone reacts differently which repeatedly contributes to the loneliness of all the characters. No one understands each other. The lack of clarity (like mystery boxes) regarding the disappearance of their relatives is destructive, Carrie coon’s character deals with grief by falsely convincing herself that she’s moved on but it ultimately drives her mad. The departure of the two percent is tricky to comprehend as there’s no concrete confirmation that they are dead or alive. Some people don’t even consider grieving they just hold out hope that their loved ones will return.
It’s important to note, that Lindelof speaks a lot about battling depression whilst working on Lost. He describes himself as feeling ‘crazy’ that he was depressed, in creating ‘Lost’ he achieved all his wildest dreams but felt at his lowest in life. Lindelof mentions that the fear of failing with everyone’s eyes on him was detrimental. You can even see how exactly this manifests as a plot line in ‘The Leftovers’. Justin Theroux’s character suffers from his mental health and is treated as ‘a nut-job’ like his father.
Fast forward 4 years, the show still manages to stand the test of time in 2021, a little too well. The lack of clarity with the departure is eerily similar to the current pandemic. ‘The Leftovers’ is a masterclass triggering an emotional catharsis. The show taps into fears I never thought I had. The questions the show raises are so big that you can’t possibly answer them. What happens after death? What’s the meaning of life? Why is Justin Theroux shooting dogs? But they do. They answer all of them.
Strangely enough, ‘The Leftovers’ wasn’t nominated for any Emmys and still isn’t as widely known as ‘Lost’. The pilot of ‘The Leftovers’ episode only had around 1.77 million viewers tune in. I can only assume that Lindelof finally felt the pressure lifted off of him.
As soon as the show cut to black, I looked at my reflection on my laptop screen for a while, staring deeply into myself. For me, ‘The leftovers’ will always have a special place in my heart. It’s a show that reminds that to always be thinking about my place in this world and what I have to offer.
Images from Pexels & watchingtheleftovers .com