Monday, November 2, 2015

Depression Modern

[ed. Haven't seen this one yet but now I'm intrigued.]

The second season of “The Leftovers,” on HBO, begins with a mostly silent eight-minute sequence, set in a prehistoric era. We hear a crackle, then see red-and-black flames and bodies sleeping around a fire; among them is a pregnant woman, nearly naked. She rises, stumbles from her cave, then squats and pisses beneath the moon—only to be startled by a terrifying rumble, an earthquake that buries her home. When she gives birth, we see everything: the flood of amniotic fluid, the head crowning, teeth biting the umbilical cord. For weeks, she struggles to survive, until finally she dies in agony, bitten by a snake that she pulled off her child. Another woman rescues the baby, her face hovering like the moon. Only then does the camera glide down the river, to where teen-age girls splash and laugh. We are suddenly in the present, with no idea how we got there.

It takes serious brass to start your new season this way: the main characters don’t even show up until midway through the hour. With no captions or dialogue, and no clear link to the first season’s story, it’s a gambit that might easily veer into self-indulgence, or come off as second-rate Terrence Malick. Instead, almost magically, the sequence is ravishing and poetic, sensual and philosophical, dilating the show’s vision outward like a telescope’s lens. That’s the way it so often has been with this peculiar, divisive, deeply affecting television series, Damon Lindelof’s first since “Lost.” Lindelof, the co-creator, and his team (which includes Tom Perrotta, the other co-creator, who wrote the novel on which the show is based; the religious scholar Reza Aslan, a consultant; and directors such as Mimi Leder) persist in dramatizing the grandest of philosophical notions and addressing existential mysteries—like the origins of maternal love and loss—without shame, thus giving the audience permission to react to them in equally vulnerable ways. They’re willing to risk the ridiculous in search of something profound.

At heart, “The Leftovers” is about grief, an emotion that is particularly hard to dramatize, if only because it can be so burdensome and static. The show, like the novel, is set a few years after the Departure, a mysterious event in which, with no warning, two per cent of the world’s population disappears. Celebrities go; so do babies. Some people lose their whole family, others don’t know anyone who has “departed.” The entire cast of “Perfect Strangers” blinks out (though, in a rare moment of hilarity, Mark Linn-Baker turns out to have faked his death). Conspiracy theories fly, people lose their religion or become fundamentalists—and no one knows how to feel. The show’s central family, the Garveys, who live in Mapleton, New York, appear to have lost no one, yet they’re emotionally shattered. Among other things, the mother, Laurie (an amazing Amy Brenneman, her features furrowed with disgust), joins a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members dress in white, chain-smoke, and do not speak. They stalk the bereaved, refusing to let anyone move on from the tragedy. Her estranged husband, Kevin (Justin Theroux), the chief of police, has flashes of violent instability; their teen-age children drift away, confused and alarmed.

That’s the plot, but the series is often as much about images (a girl locked in a refrigerator, a dog that won’t stop barking) and feelings (fury, suicidal alienation) as about events; it dives into melancholy and the underwater intensity of the grieving mind without any of the usual relief of caperlike breakthroughs. Other cable dramas, however ambitious, fuel themselves on the familiar story satisfactions of brilliant iconoclasts taking risks: cops, mobsters, surgeons, spies. “The Leftovers” is structured more like explorations of domestic intimacy such as “Friday Night Lights,” but marinated in anguish and rendered surreal. The Departure itself is a simple but highly effective metaphor. In the real world, of course, people disappear all the time: the most ordinary death can feel totally bizarre and inexplicable, dividing the bereaved as often as it brings them closer. But “The Leftovers” is more expansive than that, evoking, at various moments, New York after 9/11, and also Sandy Hook, Charleston, Indonesia, Haiti, and every other red-stringed pin on our pre-apocalyptic map of trauma. At its eeriest, the show manages to feel both intimate and world-historical: it’s a fable about a social catastrophe threaded into the story of a lacerating midlife divorce.

The first season of “The Leftovers” rose and fell in waves: a few elements (like a plot about the Garveys’ son, who becomes a soldier in a separate cult) felt contrived, while others (especially the violent clashes between the Guilty Remnant and the bereaved residents of Mapleton) were so raw that the show could feel hard to watch. But halfway through Season 1 “The Leftovers” spiked into greatness, with a small masterpiece of an episode. In “Guest,” a seemingly minor character named Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a Mapleton resident who has the frightening distinction of having lost her entire family—a husband and two young children—stepped to the story’s center. In one hour, we learned everything about her: what she does for work (collects “survivor” questionnaires for an organization searching for patterns), what she does at home (obsessively replaces cereal boxes, as if her family were still alive), and what she does for catharsis (hires a prostitute to shoot her in the chest while she’s wearing a bulletproof vest). She travels to New York for a conference, where her identity gets stripped away in bizarre fashion. But, as with that prehistoric opener, the revelations are delivered through montages, which drag, then speed up, revealing without overexplaining, grounded in Coon’s brilliantly unsentimental, largely silent performance. When the episode was over, I was weeping, which happens a lot with “The Leftovers.” It may be the whole point.

by Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Emiliano Ponzi