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Review: For ‘The Leftovers,’ How Does Reading the Book Affect Episode 3?

Review: For 'The Leftovers,' How Does Reading the Book Affect Episode 3?

Last night’s “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” the third episode of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” broke form entirely with the previous two installments of the show: Rather than maintain the series’ established structure as an ensemble drama, the episode focused on Reverend Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) and his efforts to save his church and spread his version of the truth. [Some spoilers follow.]

What was the impact of that decision, and did previous knowledge of Tom Perrotta’s novel affect our perception of it? Indiewire discusses below. 

Liz: The thing that can be most fascinating about the early weeks of a new show is watching it discover how, exactly, it plans to tell stories. Usually, though, you see that come in the form of plotting, though — dramatic plot twists, the introduction of new relationships. You almost never see a show completely shift its its entire format in its third episode — but “The Leftovers” seems determined to be like no other show ever. 

Without having any warning as to what was coming, what was your reaction to this season’s third episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter”? 

Ben: It took a while to admit to myself it was actually happening. Because a few characters we’ve already seen pop up early in Episode 3 (including the Chief, who, of course, is best buds with the most hated person in town), I wasn’t ready to see Reverend Jamison as our lead protagonist for our third hour of “The Leftovers.” It certainly made the episode stand out, but it didn’t work for me the way the first two did. Much of the momentum in the premise was pushed to the background in favor of philosophical meandering. 

Liz: It’s interesting that you found the premise submerged — to me, it simply felt like a completely new and separate premise, the tale of a plucky clergyman/muckraking investigator trying to save his church. It was almost like a little mini-movie starring Christopher Eccelston (who at the very least proved his ability to carry an hour of television). It might have been a bit too simple in its plotting and structure, but I didn’t feel like it lacked for story. 

I can see why you might think the philosophical stuff was more prominent, given that this was “Leftovers”‘s first really big push into exploring the religious aspects of the series. Would you agree or disagree that including that angle is necessary? 

Ben: Tentatively, I would agree it’s necessary, but that’s only considering all I know — which is from the first two episodes and not the book. The inexplicable disappearance of two percent of the world’s population forces the issue, as do the many cult-like bodies forming an immediate threat to our protagonists. 

READ MORE: ‘Leftovers’ Creator Tom Perrotta On How He and Damon Lindelof Made His Book Darker for HBO

That being said, I don’t think we needed an hour on the good Reverend to understand his role in our story (literal and metaphorical). Peter Berg didn’t helm this episode, and the lack of visceral energy is evident, especially if you watch the admittedly exciting final few moments and listen to just how heavily the score kicks in over the ending scene. I can’t wait to see what the Guilty Remnant (GR) does next, but the audio emphasis was needed because director Keith Gordon can’t quite fill the shoes of his predecessor. 

Liz: There’s no denying Berg’s talents as a director, especially by comparison. But while you’re right about the audio cues, the visual impact of a church being consumed by a cult still definitely shook me. 

That comes from the storytelling, though — in general, I found this episode much more interesting on a writing level. Like I said before, structurally it’s pretty simple, but its placement within the season blows up the show in a fascinating way, especially if watched immediately following the first two. (The first three episodes, plus Episode 5, were made available for review.) 

It’s also the episode that I suspect is most likely to trigger “Lost” PTSD in viewers, which is interesting since so much of the press surrounding Damon Lindelof’s involvement has been about removing the expectation of a “Lost”-esque mystery behind the disappearances (as well as the expectation of any real answers). Is this too much of a narrative leap?  

Ben: Simple answer: Yes. As a viewer left unscarred by “Lost,” I’m not worried about comparisons between the two, but Lindelof needed to fill twice as many episodes on ABC, making its flashbacks acceptable filler. This felt like unacceptable filler. 

I may not need answers now, but the Reverend’s story was far less interesting at a basic level than any other. I’d have rather spent a full hour with the Chief, Meg, Aimee or any of the other Garvey family members, and moreover, I don’t want to spend an hour with any tertiary character this early in the show. Keep establishing your storylines. Keep pushing what works. Don’t slow down to let viewers drift off for 45 minutes out of an hour, only learning pertinent information at the episode’s end. Eccleston’s performance, while powerful, simply wasn’t enough for me after those first two weeks of taught, focused storytelling.

Liz: See, I disagree, but that may be because I’ve read the book. Up until now the series had made some significant changes but was very recognizably born of Tom Perrotta’s novel. Then comes “Two Boats,” which contains a few major plot changes but more importantly just seems to take place in an entirely different world. There’s something almost refreshing about that, on top of the fact that it’s such a rule-breaker of an episode. 

By the way, the decision to change the book and make Nora, the woman who lost her entire family during the not-Rapture, into the sister of the Reverend is a great choice, by the way — especially because of the back story it creates, and the way it tightens the ensemble. (Though there’s that scene in Episode 2 where Jill and Aimee don’t seem to know that Nora and Matt are related — that doesn’t seem very believable for a small town.) 

Ben: Two interesting points right there, one broad and one not so much. The latter is “how small is a ‘small town’?” — I think the idea of “small” depends on where you grow up. It’s entirely insignificant to the show, but being from a town of 1,000 people, I don’t see Mapleton as that small. Maybe you do, and that changes our perspectives on this one small point.

As for a much larger and more vital perception-related question: How much should reading the book matter when watching a TV show (or movie, really, but we’ll stick with TV)? I agree that it sounds like a good writing move to bring Nora and the Reverend together, but before you mentioned it, I hadn’t given their relationship a second thought. 

Why not? I haven’t read the book. The same goes for expectations: I came in with a relatively clean slate, whereas you’re stuck with an idea of what the show “should” or “could” look like in your brain because of your pre-existing knowledge. Obviously, you give this a lot more thought than your average Joe, but I feel many people treat anything a show does differently from the original source material as “wrong” even if it’s just “different.”

Liz: Fair point regarding small towns — I’m from suburban sprawl, so it’s not my field of expertise. 

How much SHOULD the book matter? In theory, it shouldn’t — especially if you respect the creative process behind these sorts of shows, and don’t have the expectation that a 336 page book should be exactly the same as a 10 episode TV series. 

But I will say that it DOES matter, depending on how well you remember the original work. (I read the book in 2012, so some details are quite fresh in my memory, while others have faded.) There are undoubtedly intense fans of Perrotta’s work who are completely turned off by the changes which have made from page to screen — those are the ones who see everything as “wrong.” Then there are folks like you, who have no connection to the book and so are judging the series entirely on its own merits. Having read the book, but not expecting slavish devotion to it on the part of Lindelof, puts me in between those groups, which can be an uncomfortable position.

This is actually why I haven’t read any of the “Game of Thrones” books beyond “A Clash of Kings” — as an experiment, I held off on reading the third book before the third season, and found myself having a much better time just watching the show blind. 

Do I regret having read “Leftovers”? Not necessarily. But this is also probably why I liked “Two Boats” so much — it almost seems to promise that maybe I don’t know what will happen next. 

Ben: I couldn’t agree more, except I would see your position as preferential (in addition to or replacing “uncomfortable”). You have the knowledge of the background text without putting it on a pedestal. It makes me far more interested in your interpretation of the work than anyone who writes off “Game of Thrones” because “the book was better” (there are plenty of other reasons to write off “GoT”). They’re lost in the past instead of experiencing the present, whereas it sounds like you have figured out a way to do both. 

But back on point, I would argue this reasoning — its unexpected nature for you — is spot on for our differing opinions on Episode 3. “Two Boats” is still better than most TV going right now, so I hope you don’t think I’m trashing it. I just miss Peter Berg. After this episode, I’m quite sure I’d rather see his version of “The Leftovers” than Lindelof’s. 

Liz’s Grade: A-
Ben’s Grade: B 

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