A lesson in second chances

The Leftovers ascends to greatness

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For those watching HBO’s The Leftovers, and that number, at least in same day viewers, appears to be disappointingly small, Sunday’s finale was the culmination of one of the great second seasons in television history. In fact, screw that. Viewers were just witness to one of the greatest seasons of TV ever made.

Damon Lindelof, the most unnecessarily self-flagellating showrunner in all of Hollywood, has managed something remarkable. He’s taken an ambitious but divisive show, added and altered a host of elements (a change of location; the introduction of an entirely new family; Liv Tyler appearing once in the first eight episodes) any one of which would count as a potentially-ruinous gamble, doubled down on the mystery, conceded not a step to those who felt the show was too bleak or depressing, and emerged on the other side, like Kevin Garvey from a shallow grave, better and more focused than ever.

The critical response has been overwhelming; naysayers have been transformed into picket-sign-advocates. It’s difficult to overstate the achievement here, but like The Wire before it, The Leftovers is destined to find the majority of its audience in the months and years after it airs. That this is completely, easily, plausible is one of the more underappreciated benefits of the VOD era.

Lindelof said of Lost that, if no one had watched the first season and they’d never gotten to make any more, the goal was something like The Prisoner. A cool, short run that the right audience would remember. Lost turned into a juggernaut, of course, but if two seasons of The Leftovers are all we get – HBO is yet to make a decision on its future – he’s more than achieved that this time around. This is a show that will be dissected, discussed, and passed around, for a long, long time to come.

Let’s not take too pessimistic a stance just yet though. This is not NBC with Hannibal, nor NBC with Awake, nor… well, you get the general picture. This is the Home Box Office, that most patient of outlets, and critical adoration can be all they need to justify keeping a show around. Sure, ratings are nice, and a handful of deserved Emmy nominations would certainly swing the balance, but HBO has the luxury of long-term thinking.

As Game of Thrones can tease a White Walker in the pilot and then withhold so much as a glimpse for the rest of the season, HBO can make plays that have little obvious short-term payoff, but that shower its brand in glory a decade down the line. This is the network that gave The Wire five seasons, Deadwood three; even Enlightened got a second.

Even in the current television landscape, maybe The Leftovers is too challenging a show. Try explaining to someone that they should spend their Sunday nights struggling with questions of ultimate purpose, and wallowing in grief, and you’ll see why. But make no mistake: these 10 episodes were the high wire act of the year. If the show lives on, and can maintain this level, it may well have a seat alongside Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and their ilk.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, of course. For now, let’s just enjoy it. Let’s all smile a smug, grief-hipster-y smile, knowing that the rest of the world will soon catch on. It’s hard to keep brilliance like this hidden for too long.

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