It’s rare nowadays to find anything in the pop culture lexicon that treats any kind of religious subject matter with subtlety. Come to think of it, I think it’d be hard to find subtlety in anything with some kind of religious aspect, especially the films and TV shows.
For me, at least, religious films and TV shows are like sports films and TV shows. For every good one, there’s at least one bad one. For every The Last Temptation of Christ, there’s a God’s Not Dead. For every Dogma, there’s a Left Behind: The Movie. When it comes to the latter, by the way, I find it sad that we live in a world where, concerning adaptations of Left Behind, we can choose between the psychosis of Kirk Cameron and the psychosis of Nicolas Cage.
However, I like to think of it as thus: for every bad religious film or TV show, there’s that rare gem that treats the subject matter with a sense of subtlety and intelligence. Thankfully, this means that for every sappy, brain-dead TV show like 7th Heaven or Touched by an Angel, we get something like The Leftovers.
Adapted from the novel by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers is the story of the people of Mapleton, New York, and how they deal with the inexplicable disappearance of roughly 2% of the world’s population; more specifically, it’s how they deal with the inexplicable disappearance of their closest relatives and loved ones.
The Leftovers is one of my favorite new shows on HBO, and for several reasons.
First and foremost, I love the fact that the main character is likable and identifiable. He isn’t a god among men or even necessarily a good role model; he’s simply an everyday guy who tries to make the best of the worst situation imaginable. His wife (or former wife, as the case may be) could easily be seen as a bitchy, self-absorbed character that the audience is supposed to hate and… yes, that may be part of it, but through some great acting and writing, we understand that this woman is traumatized and, like many people would do in her situation, she took the path of least resistance. It was an easy way out, and she took it because her mind and soul couldn’t take any more friction.
Another character that really shines in this first season is Matt Jamison, played by none other than the Ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston. Jamison is a former preacher who is assured that the disappearance of the 2% is a Rapture, and he remains incredulous as to why he, a supposedly good Christian, was not Raptured along with everyone else. The most obvious thing to say is that pride comes just before the fall, and in Jamison’s case, oh how them mighty do fall. He publishes a tabloid that reveals people he believes to be sinners, showing that despite what is probably the biggest and most brutal wake-up call imaginable Jamison still is blind to his own self-righteousness and pride. Jamison is Perrotta’s scorn of any religious officials who see themselves as beyond judgement and damnation. It’s of my opinion that he’s also an indictment of figures of the empty religious right like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or any of those fear-mongering people who claim to be great citizens and strong Christians when their entire careers stem out of pointing a finger at those they deem unworthy.
All of the characters shine in one way or another, which is something really rare for a TV show with religious undertones. In something as shallow as 7th Heaven, you deal with the archetypes and stereotypes inherent in lazy writing. With The Leftovers, the writers obviously work hard to bring out the levels of the characters and show us the humanity they all share.
Crafting multi-layered archetypical characters takes a keen grasp of detail and, as I said before, subtlety. However, the one unsubtle thing about The Leftovers is the existence of the Guilty Remnant. That isn’t to say that the GR isn’t a great idea; it’s a brilliant idea. There’s just no subtlety in the fact that the GR is a condemnation of psychotic religious groups, particularly its obvious influence, the Westboro Baptist Church. The protests, the crazy ideals, the increasingly intense demonstrations, the absolute assuredness in something that can’t be absolutely assured, it’s all there. When the final episode aired, the internet EXPLODED with reactions to the long-awaited revenge that the people of Mapleton took on the Guilty Remnant, and of course I loved seeing the GR finally get their comeuppance. But then it dawned on me that even something as extreme as the GR was shown to be made up of people that were just trying to come to terms with a traumatic event. Yes, of course they approach it in a maddeningly extremist way, but in the end, they are just human beings who want answers like anybody else would. It’s very rare that an extremist group is shown in such a light and it’s one of the things that makes The Leftovers such a pleasure to watch.
The main aspect that I wanted to talk about, though, the one that I adore most about this show and the thing that keeps me coming back, is the fact that despite the existence of a lunatic extremist group, a self-righteous former reverend and so many other religious aspects, it is never once explicitly stated if the Sudden Departure is a result of divine intervention. Not once. Not in the entirety of the first season is there any definite evidence to conclude that this was a Rapture. For all we know, it could be an alien invasion. And of course the reason this is done is because for all that the characters know, it could be an alien invasion.
I adore it when writers are able to put the audience in the position of the characters. By emphasizing the humanity of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, novelist Nikos Kazantzakis makes us identify with him. By focusing on Noah’s slow descent into insanity, Darren Aronofsky was able to make Noah an emotionally affecting gem. By making the audience just as unsure as to the cause of the Sudden Departure as any of the characters in the show, the writers of The Leftovers ensure that the audience will have what is probably the most important thing it can have: empathy. We feel for the characters because we put ourselves in their situation, and we identify with their reactions. Some of them we pity, others we hiss at, and others we cheer for, but through it all we have an emotional investment in their story. Considering how many religiously-themed TV shows focus on preaching to the audience instead of appealing to their humanity, it’s admirable that the people in charge of The Leftovers knew where their priorities should be.
When I heard that HBO was coming out with a show based around a possible Rapture, I laughed. “Another preachy religious show,” I thought. You can imagine how much of an idiot I felt when I discovered that it was a mostly subtle, intelligent, and powerful show about humanity finding itself again. I will be on the edge of my seat, ready for season 2.