Public Service Announcement 27 of 2017: The Leftovers, Jane the Virgin

Anyone waiting and wondering when the third and final season of The Leftovers is coming to UK screens need wait and wonder no more – season three starts with a double-bill at 10pm tomorrow (Tuesday) on Sky Atlantic. I’m a huge fan of the show and the astounding Carrie Coon in particular, so I’ll be watching, but since unpopcult is winding down a bit for the summer, the show finished in the US a few weeks ago, and I would pretty much be talking to myself – is there anyone in the UK other than me watching The Leftovers? Hit me up in the comments! – I don’t think I’ll be reviewing this time around. Anyone who hasn’t seen it, though, and is in the mood for some incredibly powerful, challenging, sometimes crazy but often magnificent tv might want to try seasons 1 and 2 (currently on Sky Box Sets) and see how you go. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’re in for a treat.

For those who like their tv a little cheerier, meanwhile, season 3 of Jane the Virgin has finally arrived on Netflix UK. Like original UK broadcaster Channel 4, I gave up on the show some time ago, but if the endless saga of Sin Rostro and whatever other nonsense the Villaneuvas and friends have got themselves tangled up in hasn’t put you off, go forth and stream, my friends. Netflix has your back.

The Leftovers s2 ep 10

imageTwenty-nine days into 2016 and I’m finally finishing the last of my 2015 tv reviews.

Of course, The Leftovers finale aired so long ago, I doubt anyone is waiting on tenterhooks to hear what I have to say about it but we’re nothing if not completists at Unpopcult so, for what it’s worth, I thought  “I Live Here Now” was a beautifully-made, moving, startling, gripping, often shocking but ultimately hopeful and uplifting way to end what has been an astonishing, mesmerising season.

Tying up almost all the show’s big storylines, while still maintaining an atmosphere of mystery, intensity and spirituality, we found out what really happened to Evie and her friends, Meg and the Guilty Remnant mounted their attack on Miracle, Father Matt got everything he wished for, John confronted Kevin, and the extended Garvey family finally sorted themselves out.

The acting was remarkable, as ever; the writing, like I’ve said so many times this season, brave, bold, and sometimes completely bonkers. Some of the risks taken didn’t work for me (particularly the return to the fantasy afterlife I hated the first time from “International Assassin“) and some of the story was a little too fantastical but, for the most part, I was entranced. The Leftovers has never been populist tv and it never will be, but I absolutely love it, and so does HBO, it would seem, since, against all odds, a third season has been commissioned. I’m not entirely convinced this is a good idea; this episode would have worked beautifully as a series finale and I don’t know how much more story there can be to tell about these characters. But then season two itself was such a different beast to season one, telling an almost completely new story, and that turned out brilliantly, so maybe I should have a little more faith in Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, Mimi Leder and the Leftovers team. Either way, I’m intrigued to see where the show goes from here.

The Leftovers ep 9

imageAfter last week’s bizarre Limbo-based episode, this was another, albeit slightly less fantastical, first for The Leftovers – no Justin Theroux in it at all? I can’t remember a single other ep without Kevin Garvey and his furrowed brow making an appearance but he was out of the picture entirely this week as, despite son Tom and ex-wife Laurie dropping by, “Ten Thirteen” was all about Liv Tyler’s Meg.

Watching the battle for Meg’s soul last year, she seemed so unsure and vulnerable that, even after she got sucked into the Guilty Remnant, there was a real hope that she might break away and rejoin the rest of humanity. Of course, any remaining shred of that hope was obliterated by her single, devastating earlier appearance this season and this episode confirms it. Meg is in deep and she might well be breaking away, but it’s in the opposite direction; not only has she fully embraced the principles of the Remnant (apart from the not speaking – she doesn’t really abide by that one), but she’s now become too much of a zealot even for them.

Or for their management, anyway, since she’s risen up the ranks to House Leader and is building her own even more insane, ultra-violent cult-within-a-cult, setting her sights on invading the one place the Remnant can’t yet get a foothold in – Jarden.

Before we catch up with where she is now, however, the episode takes us back to the loss that arguably started her on this path in the first place, the death of her mother. Interestingly, it turns out that Meg’s pain isn’t so much about her grief as about her anger at not being allowed to grieve; as Isaac puts it, the day after she lost her mother, the Departure happened, and the world didn’t give a shit about either of them.

Of course, all the cocaine she was snorting prior  to her mother’s death suggests Meg wasn’t exactly A-okay before then, either. Is her attachment to the Remnant a case of her swapping one addiction for another? And could the real reason she wants them to “f*****g step it up” be that standing outside staring at people isn’t enough for her any more? She needs a bigger high?

Albeit it’s not my favourite one of the season, this is a daring, deftly-constructed episode, skilfully weaving in a number of disparate threads and characters, and trusting the audience to work hard enough to work it out for themselves as it jumps between time periods, developing not only Meg’s story, but Tom’s, Laurie’s and even, most audaciously of all, the mystery of the missing girls.

Meg’s loaded conversation with Matt is the highlight, I think, but her malicious little smile after a particularly shocking stunt with a school bus is terrifying and the final reveal of the ep with REDACTED in the trailer is a genuinely arresting, perfectly played surprise. (Or it would have been, had I not been spoiled for it beforehand – Hurrumph.)  Never mind last week’s folly, then, this is The Leftovers back on chilling, challenging form.

The Leftovers s2 ep 8

imageAs I’m forever saying, The Leftovers is already an astoundingly clever, beautifully acted, profoundly affecting drama, with a depth and perspective unlike anything else on tv. To push that envelope even further, as it did this week with “International Assassin” takes a lot of courage, particularly when setting a whole episode in what seems to be some form of role-playing Limbo; given the (undeserved) vitriol Damon Lindelof continues to receive for experimenting with a similar theme in the final season of Lost, he deserves all the credit in the world for being brave enough to go there again. Especially since there were any number of safer, easier, less radical ways to resolve the Kevin/Patti conundrum than this unapologetically mad mix of Alice in Wonderland, Dante’s Inferno and Spooks.

That said, however, I appear to be a big old hypocrite. I chastise programmes for sticking to safe, cliched stories and structures, then I see wildly experimental episodes of two different shows in one week and I dislike them both. Or, to put it more accurately, I dislike the Doctor Who one, but I hate The Leftovers’ one.

Yes, this ep was still astoundingly clever and beautifully acted. Yes, it had a depth and perspective unlike anything else on tv. But instead of being profoundly affecting, I found most of it really, really silly. There were some brilliant, complex ideas, some very big themes and quite a bit of black humour, but I was still bored and irritated through most of the ep so, for me anyway, it was an experiment which did not work. Critics seem to have absolutely adored it, however; the fact that I didn’t may mean that my taste in tv storytelling methods is significantly more pedestrian than I like to think.

The Leftovers s2 ep 7

image“It’s gonna be a hard day, buddy.”

Understatement of the year, that one, as Kevin wakes up to find Nora’s left him and taken the baby with her, Jill’s furious that he screwed up their second chance at a family (not entirely fair, Jill), Ghost Patti’s still haunting him, and he’s handcuffed to the bed, with no keys in sight.

Things proceed from bad to mad as he embarks on a sort of odyssey round town to try and remove the cuff, contact Nora and fix things, with Patti taunting and tormenting him throughout. Except, interestingly, when he meets with the two people who offer him a way to get rid of her. Psychiatrist Laurie gently suggests this is a real-world problem with a real-world solution: a psychotic break requiring medication and treatment. Michael’s grandfather Virgil, meanwhile, offers an infinitely more mystical diagnosis, with a far more radical way out, leaving a gleeful Patti to offer a knowing wink to the trope-savvy audience: “…. the solution to all your problems (is) a magical black man on the edge of town? That’s borderline racist is what it is.”

In fairness to the show, though, “A Most Powerful Adversary” is based on something much more complicated than that, playing as it does on the Leftovers’ usual themes of faith, reason, guilt and pain, with gut-wrenching consequences. Because no tv death stays secret on the Internet, I was spoiled for REDACTED, but it was still a brilliantly acted, beautiful yet shocking piece of television with a horrible sense of inevitability hanging over the whole episode and indeed most of REDACTED’s story since season 1 episode 1.  On one view, it’s surprising that he hasn’t done something this drastic before now – after all, how much punishment can one person take? (Unless they’re Matt Jamison obviously – that dude’s pain threshold seems infinite.) Whether it sticks is another matter, of course. The braver, narratively more risky thing would be to keep REDACTED dead, I suppose, but there are plenty of ways within the rules of the show’s universe that he can be resurrected, either literally or figuratively, and it would work just fine. Let’s see which option they pick.

The Leftovers s2 ep 6

imageAfter last week’s detour into Mattsville, we’re back in prime Leftovers territory this week: with the DSD and a terrifyingly intense scientist with no manners at all in town, everybody has a theory about what caused the Departures and what prevented Jarden having any till – maybe – now. Everybody else’s theories don’t really matter, though, it’s how the two mothers at the heart of this season feel that counts – Erika has convinced herself she’s responsible for her daughter’s disappearance, and Nora is desperate to convince herself she’s not responsible for anybody’s.

“Lens” is an absolutely terrific piece of television, beautiful and powerful, thanks to a combination of inspired writing, directing, music and, most importantly, majestic performances from two of the best, most under-rated actresses on tv. Regina King finally got an Emmy this year (for American Crime), after years of quietly superb work, but The Leftovers’ low ratings and (bizarre) lack of awards traction mean Carrie Coon wasn’t even in the running. And she may not be in the running next year, either, but, as I’ve said before and will probably say again, she is completely incredible. I’d nominate her for every award going.

The Leftovers s2 ep 5

imageIt’s Father Matt’s turn in the spotlight this week, as he takes Mary out of Miracle for tests, is REDACTED and – uh-oh – suddenly can’t get back in.

The show’s usual religious symbolism is not so much obvious as practically written in capital letters across the screen throughout: faithful Matt pushing wheelchair-bound Mary, pregnant with her Miracle baby, along the dusty road. Judged for a sin he hasn’t committed, turned away from the inn at Bethlehem the Visitor Centre at Jarden… calling the episode “No Room at the Inn” means all that’s missing is a donkey.

How you react to all this depends on how much you enjoy Father Matt and his cheerful endurance in the face of misery piled upon unbearable misery. I mean, of course, this guy’s favourite book of the Bible would be Job.

I’m not a big fan of Matt’s, though – small doses I’m fine with, but a full episode of his almost dementedly optimistic saintliness (and Christopher Eccleston’s startling take on an American accent) in the face of an almost parodic number of catastrophes and disasters? No, thanks. Especially when it ends with Parson Pious in self-imposed exile, masochistically volunteering for yet more pain and mortification. WTF? Do the writers hate him, too?

I know that characters dealing with awful things is the Leftovers’ USP, and its portrayal of that regularly moves and fills me with admiration, but that particular trick didn’t work this week, unfortunately. “No Room at the Inn” had some striking imagery, some very clever writing and some truly arresting moments, but, by the end, Matt and his endless trials and tribulations were really getting on my nerves.

The Leftovers s2 ep 4

imageBack to Jarden this week, and it’s still the night that Evie disappeared, only this time we’re in the Garvey house; an earthquake hits, Nora realises Kevin is missing and Evie is gone and is suddenly confronted with the terrible, unbearable possibility that the Departure happened again.

It’s worth noting that The Leftovers cast in general is terrific but Carrie Coon’s portrayal of Nora, facing, in that moment, the abyss of unimaginable pain and grief that would be going through that loss again, is astonishing. Unbearable, unfathomable devastation radiates from every cell of her being, and, even afterwards, when she realises that Kevin has not gone, the damage lingers, infecting everything she does and feels.

She’s right to be terrified, though. Kevin may not have Departed, but he’s far from safe, whether the danger is coming from the frighteningly unstable John, the increasingly troubling townsfolk or Kevin himself.

Do we need Patti around as a sort of Evil Jiminy Cricket, keeping Kevin and the audience in on those dangers? I’m undecided on that. It’s certainly a useful, satisfyingly unnerving way to provide some speedy answers – especially since poor Damon “Lost” Lindelof has had to put up with so much (unjustified, in my view) criticism in the past for “letting the mystery be” – and it does mean hanging on to the incredible Ann Dowd for a lot longer than the end of season one might have suggested. But I’m not sure how much more pain the Garveys can handle: I’d really like the story to cut Kevin a break before he destroys himself and Nora with him, and being haunted by the Rickrolling ghost of his nemesis is not going to help with that.

Not that it’s meant to, of course. Dowd and Justin Theroux’s scenes together are powerful, ominous and unsettling, much like everything else about The Leftovers. This is a programme where the sense of doom hanging over everything is so strong that even miracles – Mary’s brief awakening, the Miracle town itself – seem sinister and scary. Which is as it should be. “Orange Sticker” was another superb episode of a show I cannot praise highly enough, but nobody’s watching it for the LOLZ, are they?

The Leftovers s2 ep 3

imageHaving previously checked in on the rest of the Garveys, this week’s Leftovers focusses on Laurie and Tom, who turn out to be running some sort of guerilla cult deprogramming team out of an office building.

Their scheme is simple, if dangerous: Tom infiltrates chapters of the Guilty Remnant, persuades one member to leave with him each time and brings that person to Laurie and her Remnants Anonymous group to be rehabilitated.

It’s a plan so fraught with peril on a number of levels, however, it’s practically a suicide mission. Yes, Tom is initially successful in extracting a number of people, but – never mind the danger of getting caught – he’s also just out of a cult himself and visibly vulnerable to the lure of the “answers” they provide, whether their currency is hugs or cigarettes, casual clothes or white pyjamas. On one view, it’s surprising that Laurie is prepared to risk her son’s precarious mental health like this, but then Laurie herself is profoundly damaged too, and clearly desperate to atone for what she did last season, whether it’s through her confessional book, her letter to Jill or her Remnant Rescue programme.

Without getting into too much of the detail, then, Tom is, of course, rumbled by the Remnant, Laurie’s counselling sessions aren’t as successful as she thinks, and, eventually, rather than a cure, it seems like everybody’s just going to be swapping one cult for another.

Even by Leftovers’ standards, it’s a startlingly dark, quiet yet brutal episode. The dialogue and music are relatively sparse, with much of the episode soundtracked by an insistent, fantastically effective drum solo. There are a number of deeply upsetting scenes, which are both sensitively handled and completely devastating. And the ending is as bleak and tragic, albeit in a different way, as the beginning. “Off Ramp” is difficult and harrowing to watch, but, if you can put yourself through it, it’s also incredibly powerful, terrific tv.

The Leftovers s2 ep 2

imageAfter last week’s jump into the heart of a new story, this week’s Leftovers was a much more straightforward return to the tail end of the old one, as we headed back to the end of last season to find out What Kevin (and, to a lesser extent, Nora and Jill) Did Next.

For those who like their answers, there were a lot of them: characters confessed things to each other, we found out who knew what and when, and a couple of hugely significant loose ends were tied up – in as much as anything can be tied up on this show – in a way that might have been somewhat pat (Lois the ATFEC lady and Jill the formerly troubled teen both seemed bizarrely relaxed about some crazy stuff) but worked well enough within the storyline to be forgiven. After all, as Kevin’s dad pointed out, “the laws of f*****g nature seem a bit upside down of late;” I suppose that three years after 2% of the world’s population has vanished without trace or explanation, the people left behind inevitably become slightly harder to shock.

For those of us who like their questions, meanwhile, there was a whole host of them to be going on with: WTF happened to Evie and the lake? How/Why did Kevin get there? And is REDACTED going to be as annoying in death as s/he was in life?

Because this is one of the smartest shows on TV, meanwhile, there was also a skilful, seamless, segue back into the events of last week, some pertinent, compassionate subtext on migration, the usual unnerving atmosphere and a little bit of black humour to leaven the mix. Less startling but more accessible than last week’s, “A Matter of Geography” wasn’t the best The Leftovers can do, but it was still very good indeed.