In a list of series with the most divisive endings in television history, Lost would be a contender for the top spot.
When the credits rolled on the island mystery for the final time in 2010, audience reaction to its quasi-mythical denouement was mostly stunned dismay. Viewers flooded the internet, venting their fury at co-creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.
Nor did the backlash stop there as Lindelof, at that time an avid Twitter user (he quit in 2013), found himself regularly besieged by still furious fans; three years on, the end of Breaking Bad triggered a flurry of tweets to him angrily exclaiming: “This is how you end a show.” Lindelof responded by writing an impassioned article for US trade paper The Hollywood Reporter in which he admitted: “I am deeply and unhealthily obsessed with finding ways to revisit the Lost finale and the maddening hurricane of shit that has followed it,” before concluding, “I stand by the finale. It’s the story that we wanted to tell …. And while I’ll always care what you think, I can’t be a slave to it any more.”
Yet Lindelof, it turns out, is either a glutton for punishment or a sucker for quasi-mystical stories that stand a good chance of infuriating as many people as they please.
How else do you explain his decision to return to television with an HBO adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s best-selling 2011 novel The Leftovers? The series, which starts on Sky Atlantic next month, begins in the aftermath of a mysterious Rapture-style event, known as The Departure, which has caused 2 per cent of the world’s population to disappear. In the novel, The Departure is never explained; Perrotta’s concern, and subsequently that of the TV series, lies with what happens to those left behind. What follows is an unflinching examination of the nature of grief, both absorbing and, at times, in its bleakness, almost impossible to watch.
The focus is on the small town of Maplewood in upstate New York. It’s your average US suburb, familiar from countless films and TV shows, all pleasant houses set back on leafy roads, the kind of place where everyone knows everybody else and there’s something comforting in that. Except, of course, that this is no longer the case. The Departure has ripped the heart out of this once ordinary town. At the show’s beginning, it’s been three years with no answers; some people are angry and some want to put everything behind them, while a few have sought solace for their losses in a mysterious cult known as The Guilty Remnant.
“If you come into this show wanting to know where these people went and why, then you’re not going to like it,” admits Lindelof, sitting with Perrotta in HBO’s Manhattan headquarters. “I was drawn to the idea that an event can happen this afternoon on this day and it would change our lives for ever so that no day would ever be the same. I found it interesting to look at this event and say is it going to change people or are they going to desperately try and stay the people they were?”
Perrotta wrote The Leftovers a decade after the events of 9/11 and the horror of that day runs through its melancholy pages. Yet the television series seems to magnify that feeling, ramping up the paranoia and fear to almost unbearable levels. There’s an overwhelming sense that, as W B Yeats put it, the centre cannot hold and that creeping dread seems to have seeped into every character – from Justin Theroux’s furious police chief, Kevin Garvey, desperately trying to outrun his dreams to Liv Tyler’s melancholy Meg, a beautiful woman with a seemingly perfect life, about to marry a man she loves, who remains inexplicably haunted by The Departure. “Meg is really unhappy. She’s filled with rage and torment and confusion,” says Tyler. “She’s not happy in her life or her skin, and she wants to feel anything rather than what she’s feeling at the moment.”
Tyler admits the show’s appeal lay in its complexity. “I’ve always been drawn things that are a little off,” she says. “Damon definitely has some very big ideas and there is an overall vision to some extent, but I also know that he thrives on seeing where things take him, and that’s been really interesting.”
Not everyone is so convinced by Lindelof’s spontaneous approach. While The Leftovers has won some powerful fans among US commentators – The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote: “[The Leftovers] captures the disorientation of grief in a way that is provocative and rare for television. It feels less like a puzzle than like a slow-fuse mediation on the nature of death itself” – it has faced an equal share of critics. Entertainment Weekly called it “oppressive”, IndieWire’s Anne Thompson said it was “resolutely downbeat” and New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz branded it “all bleakness, all the time”.
Lindelof seems genuinely surprised by the charges. “This might sound naïve but we never used the word bleak to describe what we were trying to achieve, although it’s an adjective that’s apt,” he says. “We wanted it to feel real – not like some big weird event. And when you start thinking like that then you start wondering, well what would it feel like three years after this terrible event? Now maybe the emotion that those sorts of thoughts release won’t be emotions that everyone will want to experience, but I feel there’s a certain release in thinking, ‘Well, now I’ve watched that I feel better about my own life’.”
The idea of depressing television as therapy is an interesting one, although I’m not sure how many people will embrace it. That said, those who love the show – and I’m one of them – adore it for its uncompromising nature, for the way in which it is more about mood than plot, for the fact that it asks serious questions about grief, depression, death and despair, and provides no easy answers.
And for all the criticism, The Leftovers has managed to build its audience over its first season: recent episodes have pulled in nearly eight million viewers over the course of each week, strong enough ratings to ensure it was recently renewed for a second season. Small wonder then that Lindelof and Perrotta remain bullish about their decision to make a mood-driven character piece. “It was never our intention to do a story-driven show,” says Lindelof. “We’re trying very purposefully to pace the show in such a way and to make it as emotional as possible.”
Perrotta agrees: “This a show about the human hunger for answers, yet the most profound answers never come to us and it reflects that. Yes, that will frustrate people in the way that life frustrates people but hey, they’ll have to live with it.”
Lindelof nods and adds: “There’s a version of this series that just goes on and there’s a version with a defined end point and that’s the show we’re interested in – this is not a show that wants to exist for years and years. At the same time we’re not building to the moment where all this answered. This is not that kind of show and we’re doing everything we can to let people know that.”
That might not please those still furious former Lost fans, but for those of us who are entranced by The Leftovers’ bleak beauty, it is answer enough.
'The Leftovers’ starts mid-Sept on Sky Atlantic and the first episode will be also be available on YouTube
Five other new US shows
“An ordinary American family is caught up in Middle East affairs” is the tagline for Tyrant, a 10-part thriller written by Gideon Raff and Howard Gordon – the team behind Homeland. Adam Rayner is Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, the son of a Middle East dictator who now lives in California with his wife and children. After 20 years, he returns to his homeland where he becomes embroiled in geopolitical intrigue (Fox, 12 Sept).
Guillermo del Toro’s 13-episode The Strain, starring Sean Astin, is based on the Chuck Hogan novels, about a vampiric virus that breaks out in New York. A second series has already been commissioned in the US (Watch, 17 Sept).
Steven Soderbergh’s 10-parter is a sort of Victorian ER; it’s set in the Knickerbocker hospital in downtown New York in 1900, a time of high mortality rates and before antibiotics. British actor Clive Owen stars as Dr John Thackery, a gruff but devoted surgeon often up to his elbows in blood (Sky Atlantic, Oct).
Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (below) stars in this high-concept drama. He’s Dr Henry Morgan, New York City’s star medical examiner; but Henry studies the dead for a reason – he’s immortal. This gives him astonishing insight, which impresses his partner in solving crime, Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza). Judd Hirsch plays his friend, the only person who knows Morgan’s secret (Sky 1, Oct).
David Tennant assumes an American accent (badly, according to some) to play Detective Emmett Carver in the US remake of Broadchurch. Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad takes the “Olivia Colman role” – Ellie Miller, the local cop he teams up with to investigate the murder of a boy in a Californian coastal town (ITV1, autumn).