Goodbye, 'The Leftovers': How HBO's Show Went From Good to Canon-Worthy Great

It started as self-serious show about grief – and ended its third season as one of TV's greatest 21st-century dramas

'The Leftovers' came into this world as a self-serious HBO show about grief – here's how it departed as one of the 21st century's best TV dramas. Credit: Ben King

The Leftovers began as a portrait of a small New York town tearing itself apart after a national tragedy. It ended with a final season that revolved, in large part, around an international scientific conspiracy involving Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers. And over the course of getting from bereaved jus' folks to Mark Linn-Baker, Damon Lindelof's mediation on mourning in America became one of the most moving and thrilling television dramas of the young century.

How the hell did that happen?

It's hard to believe now, after the merry mayhem of its third and final season, but The Leftovers was once seen as the most crushingly self-serious show on TV. Consider its opening credits back in Season One: the apocalyptic bombast of the theme music by composer Max Richter, the near-Biblical iconography of infants being torn from their mothers' arms by the universe's wrath. And while the pilot's introduction of this strange world – so much like our own, but with an inexplicable event known as the Sudden Departure ratcheting up its absurdities and inhumanities to new heights – was an engrossing experience, its subsequent episodes occasionally became stilted and often stumbled.

Yet it wasn't so much the grim tone that rankled; a show about grief and loss on a massive scale that wasn't grim would be a huge cop-out. Rather, it was the heavy-handed way in which the survivors' stories were moved forward. Think of the chain of crazy coincidences that helped Rev. Matt Jamison get the money to save his failing church, only to have it bought out from under him by the nihilistic white-clad death cult the Guilty Remnant. Or how Matt's sibling relationship with Nora Durst, whose entire family was wiped from existence on the day of the Departure, was treated as a big reveal – they're brother and sister. Ok. Who cares?

Then something wonderful happened. As the first season went on, the show got weirder, wilder, and – no coincidence here – better. And given the way they operate primarily through symbolism, the Guilty Remnant are a great place to begin looking for answers as to how.

For starters, the GR and their leader Patti Levin (the great Ann Dowd) made for antagonists of a sort we'd never seen before. Like an army of proto-Pepes, their modus operandi was trolling: specifically, a deliberate mockery of everything the survivors clung to, right on down to the memories of their missing loved ones themselves. The group's climactic assault on the town of Mapleton wasn't a murder spree; it was simply using realistic life-sized dolls to recreate the Departed and spook the squares. The cult pulled a similar trick the following year down in Miracle, Texas, when they threatened to bomb the bridge that led to the miraculously Departure-free town and wound up merely throwing open the gates to the hippie hordes camped outside. They violated the norms of every day life in ways that were simultaneously horrifying and darkly hilarious.

Looking over The Leftovers' three seasons, it's hard not to see shades of the Guilty Remnant's chain-smoking, white-wearing mischief in the show's writing staff itself. Simply put, there was no convention of storytelling, external or internal, these folks wouldn't break if it made for more intense viewing. Most famously, Season Two tossed the balance and setting the show had worked so hard to establish aside – relocating from New York to Texas, reloading the cast with a whole new family, pushing many of the original characters aside for episodes at a time. It also replaced the gloomy original opening credits with jaunty country music and brightly lit family photos that showed disappearing people basically merge with the stars, a sign the show was capable of recognizing its excesses and playfully tweaking itself for them.

And the shake-ups didn't stop there. Just when viewers had gotten used to their new surroundings, thanks in large part to tremendous performances by Kevin Carroll and Regina King the show took another enormous risk. It transported its main character, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), to a whole different reality, where he spent a stunning episode as an "international assassin" fighting to escape from a purgatorial … hotel? Even now it sounds completely crazy, but the shift to this hallucinatory afterlife was both a dazzling display of confidence on the part of the creators and a richly surreal way to explore the themes of death, dislocation and shattered sanity that were always the show's stock in trade.

The third and final season was yet another blow to the status quo. It retained the opening title design but used different theme music every week, from the Perfect Strangers theme song to a kitschy Richard Cheese cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" – to, unexpectedly, the original Richter composition. It relocated once again, this time to Australia. It involved nearly everyone in one supernatural or science-fictional quest or another: Rev. Matt and Carroll's "psychic" John Murphy attempting to convince Kevin he's an immortal messiah; Kevin's dad struggling to stop a second Great Flood by singing mystical songs stolen from aboriginal Australians; Nora trying to track down scientists who could send her where her lost children went. Throughout the season, series co-creator Damon Lindelof employed many of the same storytelling tricks he used in Lost – flash-forwards, sideways universes, mysterious locales, godlike weirdos who seem to be everywhere at once – but in a way deliberately designed to defy the quest for definitive answers, not fuel or reward it.

Indeed, the boldest move the show ever made was its final scene, in which an aged Nora and Kevin sit down an unspecified number of years into the future and talk about what happened to them since they last saw each other. Her jump to the alternate universe where her family survived and she departed isn't shown; it's simply described in a lengthy monologue delivered by actor Carrie Coon, whose restrained but devastating performance in the role made her the breakout star of the series. The finale is basically sitting right there at the kitchen table with her, daring you to believe, denying you the chance to see for yourself.

It's a leap of faith few, if any, other shows would dream of asking their viewers to make. But this series has lived and died on moves like that. It trusted us to tune in to a story about people whose lives have been destroyed by grief. It trusted us to stick with it when it turned that grief into a source for some of the strangest, blackest comedy around. It trusted us to endure changes to the setting, the cast, the credits, the tone and the nature of reality itself. It trusted us to come back the following week and do it all again. That's the bargain The Leftovers struck: If you rewarded its trust, it rewarded you in turn. It's now departed the airwaves. It will be missed.