Television director Rudy Bretz once raised the question “Is television really a new art? … Or is it just a medium for the transmission and distribution of other arts?” Since his 1950 piece in Hollywood Quarterly, few others have raised the question of whether television is capable of being its own art form, or rather, little academic discourse has been dedicated to the notion that television can qualify as ‘art’. This may be due to the strong links between commercialism and television which would almost exclude it immediately from such a classification, but as Bretz points out, “art in any medium has greatest value to the spectator when it comments upon or interprets reality,” and nowhere is this truer than on contemporary television.
The twenty-first century television landscape has seen the emergence of many complicated television narratives that give rise to storytelling innovation. Challenging the conventional norms of the network era’s episodic structures, these narratives are defined by intricacy and a level of self-reflexivity that has fostered a progression in television writing that requires a more engaged, invested viewer. These new programs have intertwined the conventional stand-alone rudiments of previous prime-time episodic dramas with the multiple storylines and the continuous unfolding plot of the soap opera serials to build a new formula. HBO’s 2014 premiere The Leftovers, an adaptation for Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, is perhaps the pinnacle of contemporary television and how far complex forms of narrative have evolved. This essay hopes to convey how The Leftovers (now in its second season) holds within it a plethora of increasingly layered and intricate storytelling components, which work together to foster the emergence of a television climate where content can be classified as art.
Any exploration of narrative complexity in contemporary television would reveal that a new paradigm of television storytelling has emerged since the turn of the century. Content creators have reconceptualised television as a landscape that challenges previously accepted norms and discourses of what audiences want from their television and what they require for viewing pleasure. Although much of what has been produced for television since the 1940s has been driven considerably by the commercial interests of the networks they are made for, television is now entering an epoch of sociocultural discourse where its value can be celebrated for contributing artistic value to screen studies. As evident in The Leftovers, experimentation with thematic semantics, comprehensive and exhaustive character studies, and “a heightened degree of self-consciousness in storytelling mechanics” (Mittell 38) have all fostered an environment in which viewer engagement means more than ‘tuning in’ and the complexity of plotlines are no longer defined by genre.
The Leftovers focuses on the Garveys, a nuclear family blown apart by The Sudden Departure, a catastrophic global event in which two percent of the world’s population disappeared in a Rapture-like fashion. The 10-episode first season explored life three years on from the tragedy, in Mapleton, New York, where a cult known as the Guilty Remnant – all of whom dress entirely in white, chain-smoke, and refuse to speak – insist on denying those left behind any opportunity to forget the cataclysmic event. The show’s second season advances beyond the final pages of Perrotta's novel as audiences are introduced to the effects of the Sudden Departure in a larger American context. The wider post-Departure world is represented by the residents of Jarden, Texas. A town now known as Miracle after its 9,261 residents were left completely untouched by the Sudden Departure. This ‘sparing’ however, has not managed to leave the town untouched by trauma.
Due to its undeniable relation to commercialism, television is rarely linked to art the way that cinema so often is. The Leftovers is perhaps the closest bridge between the two spheres that has ever been attempted. As put forward by Willa Paskin, “art has no obligation to be entertaining” and has therefore often been considered counter to television’s revenue based industrial infrastructure. Recently, however, television has both embraced the possibility, and been embraced for its capacity to also harbour artistic merit. No show has ever really deprioritized entertainment value as fully as The Leftovers. The show takes a bleak premise and repeatedly ups the ante with more violence and more misery, rather than providing its characters or audience with relief. The Leftovers’ commitment to exploring melancholy in all its permutations has made it unique, inventive, and at times, very confronting to watch.
Lindelof has also littered the show with cinematic beats. Audiences are exposed to moments that would feel more familiar with indie films that television. In the first episode, three girls are shown running naked through the woods without explanation; a moody shot of young people trying out their bodies. In other scenes, audiences encounter a woman watering her lawn in a wedding dress, a trailer covered in Christmas lights in the woods, and a man slaughtering a goat in a busy diner. Most notable of all these arthouse-esque moments is a discrete segment which opens the season premiere; a prehistoric pregnant woman, who appears to live on the land that would become Jarden, attempts to survive after her entire tribe is decimated by an earthquake, a sudden departure of its own. The scene is very much in conversation with 2001, but also calls Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog to audience’s minds. Despite seemingly out of place with the rest of the series’ narrative at first, the progressive opener is engrossing and engaging and can be celebrated as a storytelling attempt more “fascinating than folly” (Paskin). Without a fully explained context, these obscure details remain just that, obscure; open to interpretation of meaning. Audiences are free to comprehend where these unique narrative moments fit into this new setting of Jarden, TX, as well as in the wider post-Departure landscape.
From its debut The Leftovers has faced a significant amount of criticism, primarily from the combination of its shocking violence and its mysterious premise that would never truly be explained. Many viewers expected a relationship to be formed between the two: they endure the violence in order to be rewarded with the missing puzzle pieces. But as pointed out repeatedly by both the series’ showrunners and by countless critics, this is a fundamental misreading of the show. Lindelof and Perrotta never intended to resolve or explain the show’s central mystery, and they certainly never promised the satisfaction that such an answer would produce. Ultimately, what made the series so frustrating was also what made it so great. Its undeniably unique premise was merely a vehicle through which Lindelof and Perrotta could explore humanity. People crave understanding and control, over themselves and over the world around them. It is this message that Lindelof and Perrotta wanted to convey throughout the series, perhaps an even bigger mystery than where two percent of the world’s population disappeared to. This intention was echoed time and time again by Perrotta:
“I feel like a lot of shows and movies and books have dealt with the chaos that happens right after some events… What I was really interested in with The Leftovers was this moment when the world starts to heal but it’s different than it was before.”
The Leftovers will not answer the big questions that its premise opens, but that is very much the point. Much like in the first season, the major mystery of the second season, - how and why Miracle was ‘spared’ - is shown to be of less concern to those left behind than conveying their attempts to try to make sense of it.
An example of the rising trend in storytelling whereby extreme circumstances are used as merely a contextual setting for a harsh but surprisingly compelling character study (see also How I Live Now, The Walking Dead), The Leftovers plays with the supernatural but still manages to feel immensely real. This is largely because the show is set three years after the actual day of the Sudden Departure and for the majority of the population, the initial shock has worn off. None of the central characters in The Leftovers, nor anyone they encounter, really feel as though they are coming from an alternate universe. Their residual grief looks and feels very much like attempts at coping do in the lives of audiences. For the most part, they are ordinary people who have had something pretty extraordinary happen, and they are just trying to get on with their lives, even though they are a little (or a lot) more broken than before. Many of the show’s episodes which do focus on a single character follow a similar emotional arc: any endeavours towards happiness and hope are consistently “besieged by the Departure’s still thunderous reverberations” (Paskin). It would hardly be a show about The Leftovers if it were otherwise.
The show remains uniquely interested in how individuals cope – or do not cope – with tragedy. Characters are not painted likable or unlikable, but often simply relatable, or recognizable to those in the audience's own lives. The show provides intensely personal explorations into individual attempts at dealing with loss. Throughout the season, Lindelof regularly dedicated episodes to a single character, in a near episodic manner. In the episode centered upon Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), viewers are introduced to a woman so broken and numbed by the loss of her two children and her husband on October 14, that she pays prostitutes to shoot her while she wears a bullet proof vest. In another episode, audiences spend time with Laurie Garvey (Amy Brennerman), whose choice to leave her family behind and join the arcane Guilty Remnant (in order to feel her ‘left behind status’ is given some meaning) is vague and mysterious until she becomes the audiences' focus, propelling the narrative forward. The raw veracity with which Lindelof and Perrotta examine individual means of coping reaches its pinnacle in the episode “Ten Thirteen” where character Meg (Liv Tyler) is revealed to be dealing with the grief of losing her mother one day before the Sudden Departure. As a consequence, her pain almost invalidated by the immense global loss of the tragedy.
The Leftovers is also a touching study of how communities, whether they be an entire town, the entire world, or a group such as the Guilty Remnant, cope with loss. The Departure can be viewed as a reflection of the irreducible mystery of humanity where people do not want to be “at the mercy of forces that they don’t understand” (Perrotta). By examining a range of attempts at coping with grief, The Leftovers reminds audiences that despite wanting to feel in control of the much larger world around them, they are instead, merely a very small part of it. The show refuses to give them the kind of comfort that people regularly crave from familiarity in their viewing habits. That the show is so relatable also makes it that much more frightening. The world invented by Lindelof and Perrotta might be terrifying, but it was built on familiar ideas – emphasising that there is nothing to say a Sudden Departure could never happen in real life. Filled with an unparalleled level of self-awareness, The Leftovers may be the only show on television that consistently aligns audiences with the exact emotional reactions to the characters which fill its world. The show invites audiences to question belief systems, whether they be their own, or those of the zeitgeist, while also acknowledging the power that belief systems can manufacture.
The new styles of discursive articulation as put forth in The Leftovers provides evidence to the relevance of experimentation in storytelling techniques on television. An increased appearance of cultural reflexivity works to advance the medium and legitimize contemporary television as a form of sociocultural commentary previously reserved for more artistically inclined video content. In many ways The Leftovers is niche entertainment. For audiences, discomfort and feelings of unease can arise from its hard themes and its confronting and regularly violent plot points. Many could argue that this could be unappealing to the broader audience that television executives have previously craved. In the past television has often been considered to have novelistic aspirations, as evident by the significant discourse on shows like The Wire, Lost and more recently, The Knick. Certain shows have also been celebrated for having cinematic qualities, an attribute that has burgeoned with the ever evolving digital industry. The Leftovers however, is the first time in which the medium can be considered as a sincere form of artistic expression. The show carries the capacity to tackle issues of faith and grief in a manner which evokes a weighty response from viewers while also not asking any more from its audience than it asks from its characters: an honest response.
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