One TV show captured the existential horror, and subtle beauty, of 2017

Begin again.
Begin again.
Image: HBO
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The last 12 months have been marked by political upheavals, natural disasters, and a continuous string of scandals that plagued virtually every industry in the global economy. Though appraisals of 2017 vary depending on the person, it has been an ugly year from a purely objective standpoint—one so messy and brutal and eerie that the world might appear unfamiliar to you in a way you’ve never quite experienced before.

So that’s where TV comes in. People generally watch it for a brief respite from their lives. Who wants heartache or confusion when there’s already so much of that in reality? We want to laugh. We want superheroes to save us. We want to solve fictional mysteries. We want to have things we can’t have, feel things we can’t feel. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Launched in 2014, The Leftovers, a surreal show about the end of the world as we know it, seemed unlikely to offer such escapism. It started with a grim premise: the aftermath of the inexplicable disappearance of about 2% of the world’s population. Everyone loses someone. Everyone grieves, in drastically different ways. A dangerous cult fills the religious void left when our sacred texts failed to explain why millions of people could simply disappear without a trace. Homes burn. People die. People try to move on, too, and in doing so they start to live again.

And yet over its three seasons, The Leftovers emerged as very much an escapist show. And it was never more so than in its breathtaking third and final season, released this past spring. In it, we were transported to a lion-worshipping cult sex cruise, and slipped into a purgatorial netherworld as an assassin with a vital mission to accomplish. The Leftovers, as emotionally raw as it is, is pure fantasy. A dark, depressing fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.

This surreality is what made the HBO series so perfect for our collective psyche this year. The Leftovers beautifully captured the extraordinary circumstances many people around the world found themselves in in 2017. That’s why The Leftovers is not only the best TV show of 2017, but also the most 2017 show of 2017, encapsulating the essence of what it currently feels like to be a human being in a strange world.

the leftovers hbo
Image: HBO

To explain the show’s final season broadly, without spoilers (because there’s still time to watch the season before the end of the year!): The main characters are thrust on a voyage from the US to Australia, in an attempt to finally understand what happened to their departed loved ones. One character thinks the answer might lie with the country’s Aboriginal people. Another character, his mentally ill (and seemingly immortal) son, follows after him. And then a bunch of others follow after him.

Eventually, their stories collide down under, where absolutely none of them find the exact closure they were looking for. Just like in real life. They each find something, just not the somethings they thought they were looking for.

When I spoke to the show’s creator, Damon Lindelof, in June, he made a strong statement about what he created: The Leftovers is a love story. Beneath the fanatical premise and the global chaos that ensues, it’s a story about two people making a connection. A connection born out of mayhem, nurtured by sadness, and ultimately held together by hope. What better way to dramatize the feeling of being alive today? What better way to pay tribute to 2017?

It seems a corny sentiment when plainly written out. But when you add the work of great actors Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux, who each turned in devastating performances, and director Mimi Leder’s camerawork, the platitude is transformed into a stunningly moving work of art—human emotion distilled into its most truthful form.

Seeing these two deeply damaged souls somehow find each other again amidst the disorder, and pledge to tackle whatever comes next together, felt like perceptive commentary—even if unintentionally—on a year where many of us were struggling to feel hopeful. The Leftovers showed a way to outlive the despair of a chaotic world: reach out into the dark and grab somebody’s hand.

I’m far from the only person who responded this way. TV critics nearly unanimously named The Leftovers the best show of 2017. One of them, Alan Sepinwall, writes elegantly that the series is “2017,” disguised as a prestige HBO drama:

Years from now, if someone were to ask me not what happened in 2017, but what it felt like — not just in the moments of utter confusion and despair, but the ones of unexpected mirth, joy, and sheer disbelief (good or bad) at what we’re seeing — I might just hand them this season.

The Leftovers chooses hope in the end, not only with Kevin and Nora, but with its entire world, which manages to hang together and move on after nobody expects it to.

It’s no surprise that a show so universally admired by critics was ignored by most major award shows. Throughout its three-season run, The Leftovers has only been nominated for a single Emmy. It’s not a show that creates buzz, or demands deep dives on Reddit, or extrapolates modern America into a totalitarian future. Rather, it’s a small, quiet show that makes you feel things and inspires thought—not the ingredients of an awards frenzy.

The disconnect between the glowing critical consensus and award snubs is frustrating for fans of the show, but it doesn’t matter in the end. Those who watched The Leftovers have something far more powerful than the validation of a trophy—a truthful experience. More than that, it left us with a guide on how to move through a world we no longer recognize.

The Leftovers is the very best and most essential artistic artifact of 2017.