On ‘The Leftovers’ and the Redemption of Damon Lindelof

Speaking for the rest of us… HBO

The Leftovers, a show with a Jesus-like main character who can rise from the dead, does not actually feature a savior. Kevin Garvey is not a hero. He just nuked the world, tore down his true love, abandoned his responsibilities and consummated his relationship with suicide (again). He may be bat shit crazy or The Most Powerful Man in the World or both. But he’s definitely not the second coming.

The real savior of The Leftovers is co-creator Damon Lindelof. He’s the guy you want to sing karaoke with at the Purgatory Hotel.

Lindelof has made stops at every point on the professional spectrum in his career. In the early 2000s he toiled away as a TV writer on shows like Nash Bridges and Crossing Jordan before finding himself, at just 31-years-old, as the bull goose loony of the crazy deserted island that was LOST. His showrunner status there was basically a happy accident, but LOST quickly became the Internet Age’s first TV crush and Lindelof was anointed a wunderkind. He, along with David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) would become the first of the celebrity showrunners.

Shortly after is when the wheels on the Dharma bus came flying off. LOST’s greatest accomplishment – the rabid fascination of fans – quickly turned into Lindelof’s worst enemy. He was met with loud and unrelenting Internet anger as the show’s disappointing final season and series finale failed to answer many of LOST’s checklist of mysteries. Suddenly, the undefeated forces of gravity had had enough of Lindelof’s meteoric rise and hurdled him back down to Earth in fiery fashion. The guy was even chased off Twitter by jilted viewers.

Things didn’t get much better in the following years. Fair or not (answer: not), Lindelof’s mystery laden style was blamed for the varying script failures of feature films Cowboys & Aliens (2011), Prometheus (2012), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), World War Z (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015).

But then, with Lindelof at his lowest, The Leftovers came along. Based on Tom Perotta’s book of the same name, The Leftovers has never been much of a ratings hit. But what it has been is an evolving show that is considered today by most critics to be one of the best – if not the best – series on television.

So just how in the hell did this guy claw his way back from the darkest corners of Internet trolling? By saying “screw it” and doubling down on the inexplicable mysteries that caused his downfall in the first place. You thought smoke monsters were weird? Boy, do I have a surprise for you! The Sudden Departure, imaginary (maybe) voices, the afterlife, resurrection, manic delusions…talk about steering into the skid.

But this second time around, Lindelof wisely avoided the rinse-dry-repeat cycle. Like The Leftovers narrative structure, there were tweaks and revisions. Where LOST was a continual build up of cascading mysteries – Walt, the hatch, Dharma, etc. – The Leftovers takes place after the Big Thing has happened. This lets the show revolve around the reactions of the main characters. The Ringer’s Alison Herman points out just how effective of a pivot this was for Lindelof.

“Just like starting a drama after the most dramatic thing that will ever happen to its characters, and just like giving away the fate of the world while building up final-season suspense, basing the bulk of a show’s action on things that might not even be happening is a method of storytelling that seems doomed to fail….And yet The Leftovers pulls it off, because the persistent ambiguity over its basic reality gradually shifts the show’s big question from What’s happening? to What does this mean to the person it’s happening to?”

One of my favorite themes from shows like Six Feet Under and Mad Men is the idea of self: what kind of person am I? If I’m a bad person, I should try to better. If I’m a good person, I should avoid being bad. But what those shows did so expertly was realistically present that sense of self – goodness, badness, happiness, sadness – on a sliding scale. We aren’t our best or worst selves 100% of the time; it comes and goes in spurts. Self-improvement and self-destruction are a process, not a switch that can be thrown easily. Therein lies the truth and realness of the characters in The Leftovers.

These people are struggling with loss, grief, separation, loneliness, and identity issues (Who do I want to be? Who can I be? Who am I really?) plus the occasional messiah complex. They’re all trying to make sense of a senseless world and doesn’t that feel familiar?

Just like them, I’m not OK all of the time. I have fears and flaws, insecurities and inabilities that eat me up from the inside while I crack jokes on the outside and offer to buy the next round. We all do. But that’s what I love about The Leftovers: it tells us that it’s OK to not be OK sometimes. It’s saying that trying, even if that effort comes in inconsistent waves, is just as important as being. Kevin and Nora and Matt and Laurie and John can’t just wake up one morning and choose to be all right just like that. They have to fight. So do we. Victory is far from a sure thing in that battle, but the beauty of life comes from the effort, not the result. Variety’s Maureen Ryan hit on the show’s emotional relevancy in a recent eye-watering piece.

“The show has found ways to illustrate these highly variable quantum states, to show how far apart these people are from each other, and from different versions of themselves. They see each other, sometimes, but they often cannot bridge these gaps.

“And that’s OK.

“Sometimes all you want is to be seen.”

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe The Leftovers is all about Jesus and religion and penis scanners. Maybe it’s all an elaborate make-it-up-on-the-fly ruse like LOST: there is no greater meaning to the mysteries that ensnare these characters. I don’t know. What I do know, though, is The Leftovers is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television. It’s bold to the point of insanity and insane to the point of relatable authenticity. And that means that I can’t fucking wait for whatever Damon Lindelof does next.

On ‘The Leftovers’ and the Redemption of Damon Lindelof