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‘The Leftovers’ Recap: Into the Dark, With a Cliché or Two

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By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM   JULY 13, 2014 11:01 PM | ArtsBeat/The New York Times

 

Season 1, Episode 3 It is no fault for a story to interrogate the ways we struggle with calamity, or even to present a vision of that struggle so bleak it can drive a viewership to despair. Loss is universal. Artists, have at it.

 

But asking an audience to devote itself to this dark area ought to carry the promise of a reward. Not necessarily catharsis — although after three brutal episodes, “The Leftovers” could benefit from a bit of that — but at least some new insight, artistic flourish, or fresh take on human folly. I fear that “The Leftovers” is falling short of the task.

 

This third episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” is drenched in pain, cruel ironies and sadistic twists of fate. Again, fine — fair game for any literary genre, and this is, after all, HBO, home of the bloody “Game of Thrones.” But the impression I took away from this intermittently entertaining, deeply depressing hour was that of pain for pain’s sake.

 

The Rev. Matt Jamison (played by a superb Christopher Eccleston) has lost his wife, is losing his church, and is very rapidly losing his mind. He sets out to save his parish, committing all manner of sin, only to see his redemption snatched away at the last, a miraculous victory — a reward for his faith — crumbling before agonized eyes.

 

So a man of God is tested — where have we heard this before? The Book of Job has flourished in modern retellings, its ancient themes as potent today as they were thousands of years ago. And “The Leftovers” embraces its biblical overtones, posing the Big Questions of why we suffer, and why the good suffer along with the bad.

 

But if this episode was striving toward theological profundity, why were its ironies so pat? The god-fearing minister is rewarded for sin — stealing, gambling and beating his way to a payday — and punished for good deeds, his church lost because he helps a man who has been stoned on the street.

Amy Brenneman in a scene from “The Leftovers.” © Paul Schiraldi/HBO ©

The episode felt at once too leaden and too goofy, unrelentingly grim and yet filled with cinematic clichés. I have seen enough B-grade horror movies to know not to walk across an empty parking lot at night with $160,000 in cash — especially after an encounter with a mysterious man with tattoos. And do dream sequences about the devil always have to include a burning bed? Is that written into the Satanist-nightmare contract, along with the angelic blonde sex partner morphing into an evil brunette?

 

What is frustrating were the moments of smartness that went unexplored, the provocative ideas left hanging. We overhear a television commercial for a ghoulish consumer product: a hyper-realistic wax dummy of a family’s “departed” relative, so that a proper funeral and interment can be held. This feels sly, a touch of Philip K. Dick or maybe Terry Gilliam — the persistence of profit in the face of great suffering. That detail was nicely echoed by the prospective buyer of the reverend’s church: a hedge fund. Ouch.

 

For all the clumsiness, this episode was also the most compelling and fast-paced of the series so far. Mr. Eccleston is tremendous as the reverend, a more complex and fully realized character than the stupefied Mapletonians we’ve met thus far. The roulette sequence was edge-of-your-seat. And the scenes of Reverend Jamison washing and caring for his comatose wife were among the most difficult images I’ve encountered on television in years.

 

This is, in fact, a difficult series, and its creators have said as much. “This is not a show that’s going to give out a lot of reassurance,” Tom Perrotta, the co-creator and author of the original novel, told IndieWire this month, conceding that he and the showrunner, Damon Lindelof, have “pushed the show to a dark extreme.”

 

Mr. Perrotta said the series “is about faith and religion and mystery and grief.” But I hope, as the season unfolds, that the aesthetic rewards become more plentiful, that the cleverness trumps the clichés. Pain can be fertile ground for a TV show. But maybe pipe down the swelling soundtrack so we can listen a little closer to the details.

 

Dear Reader, am I being too squeamish about this episode’s tough subject matter? Or does this show appeal a specific type of viewer, wired to appreciate this sort of vicarious grief? Others have found more to like. What did you think?

 

 

Reference:  ArtsBeat/The New York Times  By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM   JULY 13, 2014 11:01 PM

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