‘The Leftovers’ is an odd name for a TV series that isn’t about cooking. It sounds more like a slightly congealed, cold roast beef sandwich than an engaging drama. However, in this case it’s definitely not the former.
We first discovered the series on Sky box sets, and have been binge-watching it for the last week or so. And although we’re only around 8 episodes in, we’re thoroughly hooked.
First off is the whole premise. ‘The Leftovers’ starts with a bang, with around 2% of the whole world’s population vanishing at once, almost literally into thin air. However, unlike most apocalyptic dramas, it doesn’t concentrate on the missing (called the ‘departed’ here) so much as those who were left behind, and how they cope with this vast and inexplicable event. We catch up with the action some three years after the initial disappearance, when the first surge of grief has worn off, to be replaced by a range of emotions and coping mechanisms that range from the normal to the deeply strange.
The need for the characters to find out what happened to their loved ones is never forgotten, but the addition of strange, almost supernatural little events – things going missing, people behaving oddly – means that we keep getting the sense that the disappearance wasn’t a one-off, but part of an ongoing sequence that will play out in some way over the next few months or years. It’s certainly enough to keep us gripped and watching.
The characters, too, are well drawn. Believable, honest people who struggle with their lives, but in a meaningful and genuinely human way. There’s far less of the usual “family is everything” message being banged home at every opportunity, and far less desperately awful dialogue. You get the feeling these are real people coping with a real and very unpleasant stage of their lives. Hats off in particular to the actors who portray the Guilty Remnant – a weird cult built on Trappist silence and chain-smoking (now there’s originality for you!) – who have to portray all their emotions without even speaking.
There are other nice touches. Even though the action centres on one small American town, it’s good to see that the rest of the world wasn’t forgotten or ignored. The music is beautiful, particularly the gently haunting piano refrain that accompanies much of the action in every episode. And there’s humour, too – always a welcome relief in such a challenging drama.
On the downside, I’m not personally convinced by some of the maths. Two per cent of the population isn’t, in the end, very many – less than a significant war, less than a serious global flu pandemic. It’s few enough that there would be many families who were never touched by it, even allowing for the collateral damage of people killed in the immediate aftermath (imagine a bus, for instance, where the driver suddenly disappeared). And yet it seems that every character we meet has been touched, mostly directly, by the disaster. All of them seem to have at least one ‘departed’ amongst their closest family, to the point where you have to wonder if this town was singled out in some way – or if someone got their sums wrong! Also, three years is a long time to get over even a mass outbreak of grief. Look at some of the recent terrorist attacks around the world; a year later there’s an anniversary, and then time inevitably marches on, wounds heal, and those not directly involved quickly forget.
However, these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise an excellent, haunting, intriguing, and thoroughly intelligent drama series. Leftovers or not, we’ll definitely be back for more.