Every once and awhile, you encounter a piece of culture which comes to feel to you like a beloved person. These works are precious to us: they help us understand ourselves and the world. They move us the way only people move us, normally – we care about them and they become part of the architecture of our lives.
For me, these adored and integral works are almost always books. I love some music, am transfixed by a few pieces of visual art, and enjoy movies, but my whole self is built of books, and no other medium has ever moved me the way the written word has.
I especially disdain T.V. and film. I consider these, categorically, lesser arts than the written word. Yes, I recognize that this is ignorance and rank prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion, but I don’t really care. I believe that written language is humankind’s paramount achievement; movies I consider mere entertainment.
Which is why it is emotionally confusing for me on the extremely rare occasions when I love a film or T.V. show with the same strength and admiration I feel for books.
And when I lose one of these movies or shows, I am as bereaved as I am when I finish a great book: lost and bewildered, thrown back into my real life but now without the benefit of a companion I had cherished.
This past week, I lost the best television show that I have perhaps ever seen, certainly the one which has moved me the most, with the airing on HBO, after three short seasons, of the finale of ‘The Leftovers’.
Critical opinion is, I gather, sort of split about ‘The Leftovers’: half of people feel as rapturous as I do, and half seem to have been left completely cold. Or, as an acquaintance of mine put it, “I can tell that it’s very good, but I can’t watch more than about 30 minutes at a time – it’s too weird and too stressful.”
‘The Leftovers’ is about a world exactly like ours where, one day, 2% of the population, a seemingly random 2%, suddenly vanish out of thin air, never to return. It’s about the people left, how they cope, how they understand, how they fall apart.
It’s difficult to find the language to describe how I feel about this show. Or, rather, it isn’t difficult , but I am reluctant to use it, because it is so global and so far-ranging, and I’m worried that it will make me seem soft-headed. But there is no point in writing about something you love if you aren’t going to tell the truth, so I suppose I might as well.
‘The Leftovers’ is the best depiction I have ever seen of grief on a screen. It is the best depiction I have ever seen of people grappling frantically with the need to create meaning in their lives. It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the quiet, desperate madness which descends on you when you learn that something which you believed impossible is actually quite possible. It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the fact that we both need each other but cannot change to keep each other. It is the best depiction I have ever seen of faith as a crutch, of faith as a lifesaver, and of the fact that faith can be both to the same person.
It’s hard not to admire a show that has the discipline to stop when it’s done, even if it’s only three seasons long, but I will confess: I’m crushed that ‘The Leftovers’ is over. When you encounter that clear and confident a vision, you’re not quite content with seeing only what they want to show you. You want to see more and more of the world through their eyes. You feel like they have more to tell you.
I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: I’m not done with the world ‘The Leftovers’ showed me. I watched the finale – I recognize that it is a complete vision, but I’m not finished. They might be done, but I’m not done with them. I have more to learn, about grief and rage and love. I think that they had more to show me, but I’m grateful for what I saw.