A TV show that’s “ahead of its time” usually means the format’s too strange for the audience to grasp. We’d never seen TV through the eyes of an abstract and deadpan visionary before David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” It took time to embrace comedy delivered with the rapid-fire richness of Mitch Hurwitz’s “Arrested Development.” But while Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s structure was no barrier to “The Leftovers,” this examination of what happens after 2 percent of the population disappeared — and how its survivors face the changed world — was too much weight for many viewers to bear.
And who could blame them? When the pilot debuted in June 2014, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) said people weren’t just angry, “they’re ready to fucking explode.” But in reality, we had a stable president, the fan favorite San Antonio Spurs had just defeated LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, critically acclaimed comedy “22 Jump Street” was rolling through the box office, and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” topped the charts. In other words, people were doing OK.
In April 2017, as HBO’s “The Leftovers” prepares for its third and final season, political turmoil engulfs the country, baseball is being played with an intentional walk rule requiring no pitches to be thrown, “The Boss Baby” is No. 1 at the box office, and Chris Brown played a lovable goofball in a guest arc on “Black-ish.”
People are angry. People are ready to “fucking explode.” People are ready for “The Leftovers.”
More importantly, at least for the devout followers of what I believe is television’s best series, “The Leftovers” is ready for you. Season 3 is no less than a coup, wrapping up a wild narrative with ambitious new threads and honing in on each character’s fundamental spiritual and psychological beliefs. This final round with the Garvey family is designed to evoke powerful emotional reactions; you’re as likely to startle your dog from cathartic laughter as you are from open sobbing, all within the course of an hour.
Without spoiling the deft creative touches used to introduce the final season, it’s not the narrative reset we saw to start Season 2. This is a cumulative story, and it’s designed to be a cumulative viewing experience. Standalone episodes and arcs are a glimpse of the full story’s power, but dedicated study of both prior seasons will amplify your appreciation of the new year.
Taking their cue from the Gospels, co-creators Lindelof and Perrotta tell stories as grand as they are grounded. Season 1 kept us firmly rooted in the reality of the post-departure world, as these characters tried to cope with the idea they’ll never know what happens when we die. After losing loved ones, the leftovers tried to find solace and meaning in their survival. Season 2 offered audacious answers to the big questions by taking us beyond the known world. Rebirth ran rampant as we received ambiguous glimpses not into what comes next, but into why we’re here.
Season 3 goes a step further, combining the painful awareness of reality with a fresh understanding of what matters. The Garveys, the Murphys, and everyone within their chosen families feels the pressure of an impending tragedy. These high stakes play into their desires to find definitive answers, just as it forces them to focus on what matters now. The split between looking beyond this world, or finding meaning within it, also demands that the audience choose one or the other. Where does happiness lie?
In “The Leftovers,” happiness is probably too high a bar; those who accept that everything can’t be explained can only hope to be OK. They’re haunted by the mystery of death, and “The Leftovers” is a show willing to let that mystery be, longer and with more awareness than any other show would dare to do.
Season 3 does, in its own way, answer the unanswerable question: It’s the time we have here, the aspects of life we can control, that need attention. As Lindelof and Perrotta promised from the start, they don’t provide all the answers as to how and why people vanished without explanation. However, these final episodes provide resolution and understanding that’s incomparably perceptive.
Some are heart-shattering stories; others are arcs made to lift you up and carry you through. Newcomer Lindsay Duncan leaves a devastating impact in her stunning first few minutes onscreen, and Nora’s journey (played by the outstanding Carrie Coon) is heart-wrenching throughout. But moments with Kevin and his father (Scott Glenn), alongside the younger players (led by Jovan Adepo) shine light through the darkness.
In the premiere, Kevin again invokes his fear of chaos. “I can’t afford to have this place fucking explode again,” he says, his words loaded with context for the past and present. He’s afraid of what could happen. He’s afraid things won’t be OK anymore. He’s quite simply afraid. To some degree that’s the human condition, and how that awareness is reflected in the lives of these characters will shake you to your core. What Kevin doesn’t realize — and the show does, profoundly — is sometimes people need to be shaken. Pretending it’s OK isn’t the same as being OK, and people aren’t always willing to venture outside their bubbles of belief.
“The Leftovers” is here to blow up that bubble, and the people are finally ready. They’re ready not for the end, but for the moment we’re living in right now. The world has caught up to “The Leftovers.” And it’s time to fucking explode.
“The Leftovers” Season 3 debuts Sunday, April 16 at 9 p.m. on HBO, HBO NOW, and HBO Go.