Baker Academic

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Leftovers (HBO)

I tend to imagine the readers of this blog to be highly intelligent (yes, you!), close readers of sacred texts, and equipped with critical tools for interpretation. I also imagine that a subset of these readers are people of faith and/or religious practitioners. My guess is that many readers have religious upbringings but no longer practice. Or maybe you're a student of religion as an observant academic. If any of these guesses describe you, Damon Lindelof has created the perfect HBO series for you. The Leftovers is one of the most intelligent portrayals of biblical and popular faith I've seen on any screen.

The Leftovers wrapped up its third and final season this week elating some viewers and causing others consternation. Without revealing too much, the final episode spoke differently to different audiences. If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and avoid the reddit controversies and arguments. I am in camp of highly satisfied folks because I appreciate endings that allow for multiple theories of resolution.

Almost any viewer who appreciates compelling storytelling, thematic development, and masterful acting will recognize the quality of the Leftovers. But viewers who are critical readers of the Bible and students of contemporary faith traditions will receive a double blessing. This series is replete with biblical symbolism: doves, floods, scapegoats, the Akedah, twins in competition, false prophecy, resurrection, Sarah's laughter, Job's theodicy, the Last Supper, etc. That said, these easter eggs are usually hidden in plain sight. The most obvious themes running through the narrative are persistent doubt and depth of grief.

In addition to the biblical themes, echoes, and motifs, the show ascends to brilliance in its exploration of contemporary faith. The premise of the series is that the main characters have experienced something like an eschatological rapture (called "the departure"). More specifically, these characters are those who remain. While many beloved family members have vanished, they are the "leftovers." As critical readers of the Bible will know, the rapture is not a biblical theme. It is a modern invention of popular theology. Indeed, this is the Leftovers in a nutshell: an intelligent and critical exploration of popular theology. Notably, Reza Aslan served as a consultant for the series. Whatever else you might think about Aslan's scholarship, he seems to understand popular faith quite well.

The show is not without flaws. When the series began in 2014, I gave up on it after three episodes. I had trouble with repeated convoluted introductions to new characters. Moreover, I had trouble internalizing the motivations of several key characters. But if you can refrain from quick judgements and allow the story to unfold, the development of the key characters is well worth the wait. Clearly, I gave up on the series too soon. Another flaw, in my opinion, is the show's failure to tie up a few loose ends. I will say no more about this now to avoid spoilers.

The Leftovers is a serious drama punctuated with authentic moments of humor. At times, the cinematography is visually stunning. The writers'/directors' attention to detail is impressive (even down to the images in the backdropped upholstery and music selection). And if you decide to bracket out the biblical and religious themes, the show can function as a well-crafted science fiction.

Finally, this entire series is contained in three seasons. It does not make the mistake of overextending its success and thus ending with a whimper. From alpha to omega, the Leftovers is heavenly.

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