In Writing

I don’t normally have such a visceral reaction to a single episode of a television series that I vow to never watch it again. But it happened on Sunday.

Last year, I watched Season 1 of The Leftovers avidly. Sure, it was weird and dark and sometimes inscrutable. But something told me to trust it, so I did. For me, that trust turned out to be well-placed.

The concept of The Leftovers was fascinating to me. Two percent of the world’s population all vanished in an instant three years before the start of the series. (It was based on a book by Tom Perrotta, whose wonderful work includes Little Children and Election and to whom I have a crazy tangential relationship because one of my neighbors was in the movie adaptation of Little Children).  The story lines were all about the impact of grief and confusion. Where had they gone? Would it happen again? The mystery bothered some people, but I saw it as an allegory for the human condition. Don’t we, after all, lose people in our lives without knowing where they go? Don’t we spend our lives trying to cope with that?

So it was with anticipation that I waited for Season 2, which started on Sunday. It was about five minutes into the first episode when I started to feel the strong urge to throw something at the television.

It began like this: a very pregnant cavewoman leaves her cave to pee. Yes, you read that right, a cavewoman. While she’s out there peeing, an earthquake happens and seals off the cave where she was just sleeping, presumably with her tribe, which it’s safe to assume is all dead now. She goes into labor, has her baby (chews through the umbilical cord. Yum) and then wanders around alone. For a long time. Until she gets stung by a snake and dies, leaving her infant to get picked up by some other random passing cavewoman. That was the first ten minutes.

Now, I have nothing against cave people stories. I watch the Smithsonian Channel. I have fond memories of Clan of the Cave Bear. But that’s not what I’d signed up for when sitting down to watch The Leftovers. But, wait, the frustration did not end there. Because nearly the entire first episode focused on a set of characters we’d never met once in Season 1. Not only was there that disorientation, but then the episode started to take itself very seriously, with a woman going for a jog to dig up a box with a live bird inside (why… no one knows), a guy walking into a diner to sacrifice a goat, a chirping cricket driving a man (husband to the jogger) crazy, and their teenage daughter running through the woods naked with her friends. Because… why not?

I kept waiting for some relief, something to tie it all together, but the writers seemed to be thumbing their nose at the audience, daring us to try to find a meaning in their random nonsense. I could imagine them in their writers’ room reading reviews laughing their butts off at the erudite critics trying to find something deep in their random collection of gibberish. It was like a college prank of an episode. I ended it so agitated that I vowed to never watch again. (The one bright spot is that my daughter watched it with me and seemed both equally appalled but also amused at my reaction, so we had a lot of good laughs over it).

So, goodbye, Leftovers. And good luck to whatever is left over of your audience. What an important lesson in caring about your reader/viewer when writing something. One must never let one’s arrogance and oh-so-exquisite artistic vision stand in the way of respecting the reader (or, in this case, viewer), who is, after all, the whole point. When you care more about being clever than you do conveying a message, you’ve ceased writing and gone off into the land of a whole different solitary activity.

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