An Appreciation of The Leftovers

Informal polling tells me that most people don’t love The Leftovers.

I don’t love it either — but I like it and I watch it.

It has no likeable characters and you don’t care what happens to them. You don’t understand a bunch of it: a bunch of things are unexplained.

It’s creepy — sometimes massively creepy — but not in a fun way: there’s no thrill-of-the-creepy. It’s sad, tedious, and ugly.

There are no redemptive moments or moments of hope. Things start out as unspeakably awful — and go south from there.

And just when you think somebody is getting somewhere, just when you think there might be a break, the darkness snaps shut tight.

It reminds me in a way of The Metamorphosis. It starts out bad — the protagonist has been turned into a giant bug — and then he suffers, and then he dies. He’s not likeable (you suspect he deserved this fate) and his family is even worse.

And there’s no explanation for why he turned into a monstrous vermin.

And there’s no explanation for why I love The Metamorphosis so much.

It’s not like other stories that are so awful. The British version of The Office was kind of like that — so sad, so yucky — but then you find to your surprise that you care about the characters, and the big and small good things that eventually happen shine even brighter for the contrast against the bad things.

The Leftovers is not like that.

It makes me think of an America that’s one terrible step away.

After September 11, after years of war with no end, after the horror of the lack of horror over our beloved nation torturing people, after the militarization of the police and the rise of the prison and surveillance state, after the worst economic shock since the Great Depression, after the realization that climate change is devastating cities now and our can-do country can’t summon the political will to save itself — it feels as if The Leftovers is just one trauma away from where we are right now.

As fiction I love it, because I love the courage of stories like The Metamorphosis — and, well, there’s probably something wrong with me.

As social commentary it’s an angry warning, and worth paying attention to, before we end up living in it.

13 Aug 2014

Archive