The new season of “The Leftovers” is spectacular, in every sense of that word. In upcoming weekly recaps, my Variety colleagues and I will attempt to delve into all the ways in which this deeply conventional show throws convention out the window, sets it on fire, rebuilds it and then throws a dance party next it, in ways that make the viewer cry and gape and glory in being alive.
An excerpt from the notes I took while watching seven of the third and final season’s eight episodes: “I don’t understand anything, and it’s awesome.”
But first, before a few non-spoilery riffs on the show’s almost hilariously potent mixture of pain, disjunction, poetry and celebration, I need to share some thoughts about a purse. There is a point to this, I promise.
About three and a half years ago, I saw the purse in a photograph, on the arm of an actress you’ve heard of. I was looking at my favorite fashion and pop-culture site, as I do when I need a break. The actress accessorized well that day, and that should have been that.
It was not.
I needed that purse.
It was a designer purse, and it cost more than any normal human being should pay for a purse. Perhaps there are people out there who have shelled out four figures for a handbag, but I have never been one of those people, and had no intention of becoming one. I did not have that kind of money to spend on a purse.
And yet I had to have it.
I poked around the designer’s site, where it was sold out. I went on luxury web sites and set up alerts, hoping it would magically be restocked. I spent hours on eBay. No luck.
This entire time, whenever I thought about the purse, the rational part of my brain kept up a caustic commentary: “This is ridiculous. You have no need for an outrageously expensive bag that will live in your closet for the rest of your days because you’ll be ashamed to even think about how much you paid for it — and that’s if you find it. Stop wasting time on this!”
I kept looking. Because my father had just died, and I needed it. The purse would fix everything.
In the months after my father’s death, I never tipped over into shopaholic territory, but I now understand how it happens. It’s irrational — this idea that a purse or anything else will fix a problem, can paper over the hole in the heart, even temporarily. But these obsessions are so tempting not in spite of their irrationality, but because of it.
In grief, I wanted an escape, and my obsession with a purse granted me that.
This is why the characters of “The Leftovers” are my people.
They are sane and not quite sane. They have been marked by something deep and strange that they cannot name. They can’t always trust their instincts and even their sensory impressions. They know what it is to feel lost. In the riptide of grief and turmoil, some of these men and women have found something — an explanation, a belief, a person who says the right thing. It doesn’t matter if others think their belief — or their ritual, or their guru — is worthwhile. It grants them a small measure of comfort.
“The Leftovers” is funny, and sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle. But it’s often amusing because we are irrational creatures who have a spectacular ability to resist teachable moments. We all want, on some level, a little bit of fake news that makes us feel better, something that helps us tune out the hard stuff, the pain, the unanswerable questions, the unsolvable equations. We want to believe things that feel true (“A purse will fix things”) rather than things that are true (“People die and it hurts and you don’t get to be in control”).
The core achievement of “The Leftovers” — aside from crafting triumphantly coherent and delightfully bizarre episodes of television that boast beginnings, middles and endings and twists that feel both bananas and totally right — is that it celebrates our desire to ascribe meanings to things. The show sees very clearly how often we elide and edit the truth in our pursuit of some kind of coherent narrative about the losses we’ve suffered and the connections we cherish, but it’s not cruel about our myopia.
“The Leftovers” is essential viewing because it understands that popular culture and organized religion are both collections of attempts to find meaning, patterns, community, and coherence in a frighteningly random universe, which is why we fight over series finales and sacred texts with such vehemence. These battles mean so much to us because they tell us who we are. We have to tell ourselves something about what it all means, and the characters of “The Leftovers” are not only real and palpably textured and beautifully, realistically flawed, they — like the show— reject nihilism. Because nihilism is too easy, and, of course, it’s just another story.
Almost all of the characters on “The Leftovers” have obsessions or beliefs that mean a lot to them, and as the intensity gradually — or suddenly — ramps up this season, those beliefs collide in operatic ways. Sometimes it’s chamber opera, sometimes it’s folk music, sometimes it’s a rave, sometimes it’s grand opera mixed with a whispered ballad, and the suspense that comes from never knowing which it’ll be gives the entire enterprise a rumbling, delicious tension. Much of the action moves to the wide open spaces of rural Australia — the only place, aside from Texas, that feels big enough to contain the characters’ monomanias, their damaged and lovely connections, and their obsessive dreams.
There are fires, floods, bearded dudes, prophetic women and wanderings in the desert. There are needle drops that will make your heart skip with glee. There are farcical encounters on a boat, and Kevin Garvey is inundated with water so, so, so many times. You won’t be bored.
In the hands of other, less nimble creators of Prestige TV, the thematic core of “The Leftovers” — that we are lost and alone and we can never give up the habit of ascribing meanings to things we can’t fully understand and that this inability to give up on the divinity of narrative might be the definition of love — could be ponderous. A big, old slumbering bore.
But this miraculous series masterfully holds ambiguity and extremely robust storytelling in the same generous bear hug. How do you sum up a show that takes you on a rocketship ride of fear, love, pain and adrenaline, and makes a bunch of left turns and big swings, all in pursuit of reassuring itself, and us, that it’s OK that we don’t know anything, and connection is possible despite the fact that we’re all just a bunch of hopeless goofballs who are continually distracted by the wrong things?
I never did find the purse.