Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Leftovers 1.02: Penguin One, Us Zero

There was some discussion in the comments after last week’s episode of whether Damon Lindelof has no more originality in him and just keeps writing stories where mysterious things happen with no explanation, or whether Damon Lindelof is a humanist who explores how people react in dire situations, and I loved reading the back and forth from everyone, both positive and negative. As I always said with Lost and every show, the comments are a place for everyone.  

I’ll be perfectly honest: for four years, I’ve felt like an apologist for Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and I’m not. Sure, Lost had its flaws and faults, but for me, it was a fantastic show, and I adored that finale. Many people didn’t, but many people did, and I’m tired of people who cannot wait to meet me just to say, “That finale SUCKED” just to see if it’s going to get a rise out of me. It won’t. I enjoyed it; I don’t know why I have to apologize for having loved it, or why people feel it’s necessary to point out all the flaws as if they’re trying to take away this thing that I love. Trust me: I’ve studied every frame of that finale and wrote a 22,000-word piece on why it works: you’re not going to convince me otherwise.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was introduced to someone, only to discover that the only reason I was being introduced to her was because she thought the Lost finale sucked. Once I realized why she’d been told she needed to meet me, I was already standing in front of her and had no way to excuse myself from the conversation without looking rude, so I looked at her and joked, “Well, maybe give me 15 minutes and see if I can change your mind!”

“No, you won’t,” she replied, without a smile. “Because you would be wrong. Damon Lindelof is the devil.” And that’s when I just excused myself from the conversation, not really caring if it was polite or not. The devil? Really? Wow. No wonder the poor guy left Twitter; with fan thought processes that simplistic, I’m thinking he’s better off leaving social media altogether and actually doing something productive with his time.

I’m not an apologist for Lindelof; I simply love the way he thinks, and his constant examination of human nature — he does not believe we’re inherently evil, but inherently good, as he showed for six years on Lost. Despite comments to the contrary, I respectfully think he’s not presenting some overly Christian viewpoint, but quite the opposite, saying that our connections with each other are more important than our connections to some big bearded deity in the sky. As I’ve said for four years, he doesn’t write to the end game, but instead his writing reflects the lives we live. When you wake up tomorrow morning, are you going to know exactly how that day is going to end, and just live your day working to that ending? Or is it just possible that things might happen that you don’t see coming? At some point in your life has something mysterious happened that had no explanation whatsoever? Or can you explain away absolutely every single moment of your life and the lives of those around you?

I don’t know Lindelof personally, but I would bet that’s what he’s working towards: looking at things that happen to us on a daily basis and how we respond to the unexpected. In real life, it’s someone who cuts us off and then shouts obscenities out their car windows at us. What the hell is that guy’s problem, and isn’t he the one who just drove like a maniac? Shouldn’t I be shouting obscenities at him? It’s a mystery.

Now, would I write a show around that incident?

Of course not. Boring.

So to explore these ideas of human nature, Lindelof goes bigger: what would happen to a bunch of people trapped on an island with no explanation of how they got there or why? What would happen if 2% of the population just suddenly disappeared?

In both cases, these fantastical events are simply the catalysts that he uses as a metaphor to explore real-life responses to it. That guy who cut you off in traffic? In the big picture, a menial thing that you’ll never remember on your deathbed, but when it happens you think it’s the WORST THING EVER, you’ll tweet and Facebook about it, you’ll rant about it at work all day, and it’ll entirely affect everything.

And then something truly terrible happens in your life, and you forget every stupid thing you’ve complained about for the past year.

On Lost, those people were trapped on an island, but we identified with it because they responded and dealt with things just like people who are lost in their everyday lives, not tethered to anything in particular, questioning the decisions that got them this far, wondering why. In The Leftovers these people are reacting to people who literally disappeared, but we can watch it as an examination of people who suddenly lose someone with no explanation. Ever had someone break up with you without offering any valid explanation? Or a loved one die quite suddenly with no obvious medical problems? What does it feel like to be suddenly left alone? How could they do that to you? Why is this happening to you?

That is what this show is about. Lost was about the people who disappeared. The Leftovers is about the people who have been left behind by the people who disappeared.

Lindelof isn’t a writer who keeps writing the same material, but a man looking to explore all facets of human nature in its darkest, lowest moments. And that’s why I love what he does. I appreciate and respect comments to the contrary, and welcome them as long as they actually have something backing them. You want to point out that The Leftovers has a number of flaws, can drag at times, and frankly, is a little too damn dark and could use some humour? Hey, I’m right there with you. I wish there was some humour in this aside from joking about the celebrities who were taken, and that we could see a bit of a lighter side at times, but I’m willing to give him more time. I’m intrigued by Christopher Eccleston’s minister character, and the fact that, despite the girls understandably thinking she’s going to punch him in the nose, she gives him a hug on the way past him. What’s the story there?

So now, onto the second episode. We go from a gory and violent ambush against a man who might be a charlatan, might be the real deal, but generally surrounds himself with Asian girls while purporting to heal bigwigs with deep pockets. And Tom Garvey steps up to save Christine, the one girl Holy Wayne thinks is the most important above all the others. Tom becomes a killer in order to obey Wayne’s orders to protect Christine at all costs, making Wayne an even slipperier character. Who the hell is this guy? Can he be trusted at all? And why is Christine so damned important?

Meanwhile, Kevin is dealing with people thinking he just might be a dog-killing crackpot, and by the time the dog killer’s pickup truck shows up in Kevin’s driveway, I started to think he just might be one, too. But when Jill and her friend show up in the doorway and take the beer from the guy, and then Jill asks who he was, I was relieved. Thank goodness this wasn’t just a figment of Kevin’s imagination. Kevin is drawn to this guy because he acknowledges something that Kevin’s been feeling all along: that the world is no longer the place it once was, and that “these are not our dogs, not anymore.” Other people think Kevin’s going crazy, but this guy suggests Kevin might be the only sane one around. At least he’s not burning his brother’s clothes (and dentures) in the front yard.

One of the reasons people are waiting for Kevin to lose his shit is because his father (despite his protestations to the contrary) has already lost his. We see him in the mental institution — kissing Mayor Lucy — and he seems to be pretty together, until he begins talking to the voices around him. And when he does, he tells Kevin that they will try to contact him with a message. Earlier that day, Kevin put a bagel in the conveyer-belt toaster oven and it never came out, as if things just disappearing into thin air will just become a way of life. But when his father tells him this he decides he needs to go and find out if that bagel did, indeed, disappear. Maybe he’ll reach in and there will be a note from beyond? Or he’ll find a croissant? But no... it’s just a burnt bagel. I thought this moment was a bit of humour (which, I must say again: there NEEDS TO BE SOME HUMOUR IN THIS SHOW), in its rendering of Occam’s razor: sometimes the easiest explanation isn’t that the bagel got sucked up into some Holy Bagel Rapture, but that it goes stuck in the gears — like every friggin’ bagel I’ve ever stuck in one of those stupid conveyer-belt toaster ovens — and is burnt. From now on, Kevin, just use the damn push-down toaster.

Meanwhile, over at the GR house, we find Meg Abbott finding out the hard way that it’s not as easy as she thought it might be to become a Guilty Remnant, as she’s stuck in the Pledge House for weeks. Laurie is assigned to her and has her cutting wood and keeps taking her things, but she doesn’t seem to be getting to her. It’s only when she finally reveals that, like Meg, she was escaping a life that seemed to others to be ideal, that Meg finally realizes she’s not alone.

The saddest part of the episode (and the one that makes Aimee and Jill even more annoying than they’ve already been) is the section focusing on Nora Durst. The woman who lost her husband and two children on October 14th still drives around in the SUV with the little stick-people stickers on the back showing a happy million-dollar family, plays The Chipmunks CDs while she drives so her imaginary children will enjoy travelling in the car, and keeps a bag of jellybeans in the glove compartment as a treat for them. The girls cruelly follow her around after she purposefully pushes a coffee mug off a table in the café as if she gets off on people letting her get away with things out of pity, and they follow her to the house of an elderly couple looking to collect benefits for losing their son. She asks them questions that are hurtful, and they stop her after she asks if their son knew more than one language: “Charlie had Down’s Syndrome,” they tell her bluntly. She apologizes, and tells them that she has to continue asking. “To your knowledge,” she says, with a pained expression on her face, “Did your son have more than 20 sexual partners?”

Why does Nora do this job in particular? Is it a Norm Peterson thing, where the company figures others will allow her to ask these questions because she carries around even more pain than they do? Or is there some catharsis in it? By inflicting these questions on others, could she be perhaps alleviating some of her own suffering from having to answer them herself? Is it a form of group grieving? Or passive-aggression?

The title of the episode is “Penguin One, Us Zero,” and it refers to the blow-up penguin in the psychiatrist’s office. He tells Kevin that he uses it for his children’s therapy sessions when they need to work out aggression. Everyone in this episode is working out some sort of aggression in one way or the other, whether it’s shooting dogs, stealing jellybeans, knocking mugs off tables, chopping wood, or slaughtering the people at Wayne’s compound. But no matter how much aggression they take out on others, it’s not removing any of their own pain. That penguin just keeps popping right back up again, but everyone else is unable to move much of the time. “She’s gone,” Patti writes on her paper at the end of the episode, and she’s wrong: Meg isn’t gone, but has chosen to stay with the cult. However, she’s chosen to leave the real world and join a world of silence and chain smoking. Not exactly a penguin who bounces back from the blows that come at her.

Once again Max Richter’s music is ace. However, it would be nice to hear some original music from Richter: hearing music that I know really well playing throughout every scene is becoming a distraction for me. (However, I was thrilled to hear Ty Segall’s “Thank God for the Sinners” playing on the radio in the twins’ Prius.)

While I’m happy to be back in the world of Damon Lindelof, I can understand and appreciate the skeptics out there who feel like they were burned once, and just want to disappear like Kevin’s bagel. And it’s for that reason that, despite enjoying these first two episodes, I do hope the pace picks up soon, and we find some humour embedded in there very soon, or else Lindelof’s audience might just disappear in the same fashion as that 2%.

But then again, one of those departed was Balki Bartokomous. And I remember that while Lost was good in the beginning, it didn’t become stunning until the fourth episode. So I’m actually quite happy knowing that I’ll be one of the leftovers still watching, no matter what.


humanebean said...

Glad you're blogging on this show, Nik! I had read a great deal about the show prior to the premiere, and have been enjoying the series thus far. I'm reading your first two episode recaps at the same time, and am intrigued by your description of the comments from last week's installment. I hadn't read them yet, and will have to go back and do so now.

Dramatic series that have an existential crisis at their core are often a tough sell to the wider TV audience; even those whose tastes in serialized drama have evolved in recent years, and whose willingness to forego traditional weekly closure of sorts has been stretched to the max by such compelling examples as LOST, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, etc. In fact, while very little about the plot or characters suggests such similarity, I might put The Leftovers in the same category as Mad Men; a sideways drama whose genre tropes are underpinned by the darker existential crises in the hearts and minds of the protagonists. (And antagonists, for that matter.)

I'm very eager to see where Lindlehof takes this show, as I remain a committed fan just as yourself. I'm less invested in wrestling with the pieces that don't quite fit (at least yet) than I am with living in this world for a bit, turning over the pieces to see what they might mean, and how that meaning changes as we (and the characters) learn more ... or even fail to learn anything at all, but just adapt to the new facts on the ground.

In this vein, I should ask if you have seen the series Rectify, now in its second season on The Sundance Channel. This deliberate, ruminative examination of a death-row inmate released from prison when a decades-old conviction is voided is utterly unlike anything else I've ever seen. The brainchild of Deadwood veteran Ray McKinnon (the Preacher), this dreamlike, compelling drama allows us to sit with the main character, and his family, as they attempt to adjust to his release — and the lingering bitterness and anger felt by the community at large.

Each of these series requires some patience, and may well shed viewers by the score on its individual, idiosyncratic journey. Thus far, though, I'm along for the ride, and am willing to be patient to see where it goes ... and how it gets there.

Nikki Stafford said...

humanebean: I have not seen Rectify, but I'm pretty sure this is a show someone else was telling me about recently! If you're recommending it, it must be good. I was just saying to my husband yesterday that the list of shows I need to catch up on is epic, and I have no idea how I'm going to do so. I'll have to organize them into some sort of priority order. But now I'm definitely adding Rectify to the list; it sounds fascinating.

BTW, I'm currently halfway through S2 of Orange Is the New Black and am totally addicted. :) I just wish I could find time for more than 4 hours of TV a week!! MUST CARVE OUT MORE TIME. ;)

andiminga said...

Have enjoyed this 2nd episode a lot.

Characters seemed more interesting and like Lindelof and others, the reaction of the characters is more the focus compared to the mystery.

So Mystery Man (hah, he was the Senator in the first few seasons of Fringe) looked like he was missing his down teeth when he was talking. Surely it was just a coincidence in a Damon Lindelof show, that they showed us a set of teeth in the ground when the neighbor burned down his brother's belongings. Or what do you think?

PS: These two percent just could have found the other Dimension, like Homer in the one Simpsons episode. LOL

Nikki Stafford said...

LOL! Homer in the third dimension. "Hasn't ANYONE here seen Tron?!"

I wondered if the guy has chewing tobacco inside his bottom lip; that's what it looked like to me. And that would then link him to the smokers in the Guilty Remnants somehow, but he refuses to smoke and chews instead. I wonder if there will be a link?

Or if I should perhaps just sit back and enjoy it instead? ;)

JennM said...

Hey Nikki!

My pvr didn't tape episode 2. Is it at a different time than last week? Do u know the regular time slot and day so I can reset the pvr? We live in the same city:) thanks!


Nikki Stafford said...

Hi Jenn! It plays Sunday nights at 10pm on HBO and HBO Canada. :) It's repeating tomorrow night (Tues) at 9pm if that helps!

The Question Mark said...

Just got caught up on these first two eps now.

Let me start by saying the title sequence is awesome. HBO goes all out with those, and they're always a treat. The music's creepy, the visuals are haunting, and it really sets the tone for the show at large.

Speaking of tone, though, I agree with what everybody's saying here: this show needs some levity, STAT. I write fantasy/sci-fi novels and I recently gave a draft to my best friend, asking him to read it over for me. One of his comments was, "I don't understand your writing style. It's a fantasy with wizards and swords and stuff, but people are saying funny things every now & then. What's up with that?" LoL I had to explain to him that being a wizard or a barbarian doesn't make you devoid of human attributes. Human beings feel sad, and they feel happy, and angry, and silly, and panicked, etc. When it's time for sorrow in the story, there'll be sorrow. When it's time for comedy, there'll be comedy. But if you have too much of one without the other it becomes a chore to sit through. So here's hoping Lindelof and comedy bring a bit of the lighter stuff in Episode 3.

Other than that, colour me intrigued. This show definitely has a lot of potential to explore a ton of interesting stories. The GR in particular creep me RIGHT THE HELL OUT, and I'd tune in solely for the sake of finding out what their deal is.

My only complaint involves the scene in Ep. 2 with the teenage girls. None of it made any logical sense to me.
A) Why are you just randomly following a woman you've never met?
B) Why is HAND CREAM of all things important enough to break into a stranger's car in the hopes of finding some at the risk of your own safety?
C) Why was the woman's car door unlocked?????
That entire scene just stuck out like a sore thumb amidst an otherwise awesome episode. It felt like it was written by aliens who didn't quite understand human behavior or motivation. Seriously. Hand cream. WTF?!

Even in Episode One, the teens didn't seem to act like real people. It was like something was just OFF about them. That Spin-the-IPhone game they played has me particularly puzzled. Is that sadistic game a by-product of the Disappearance? Because otherwise, I can't picture any teenager in America willing to burn, fuck, and choke one another just because the spinny phone says so. :S Again, writers, WTF??

Colin Murphy said...

I don't think we received conclusive evidence that Kevin is completely sane. The way the girls interacted with the bald guy, still left the door open that he is an extension of Kevin. Why would they be so comfortable taking a six pack from a man they don't know. Kevin could've been yelling outside at nobody when his daughter asked who was there only to be concluded with the ironic response of "nobody." I think that scene was inserted only to derail the obvious thought.

Anonymous said...

I don't really have anything to say about this episode other than I got through it. I hope we get some sense of story soon though.

Nikki - I'm so glad you're watching OitNB. I think Vee is one of the great villans of our time.

-Tim Alan

Nikki Stafford said...

Colin: You know, even as I was writing that, I thought, "There's a chance they took the six-pack from Kevin as they walked through, and then heard him shouting out the door at someone." However, she does say hello to the guy and "Nice to meet you," I think, which wouldn't make sense to say to her dad. BUT... it also could be a figment of his imagination that she said those things (or a figment of mine in case she actually didn't say them and I just thought she did!)

Nikki Stafford said...

QuestionMark: Totally agree with you on the levity issue (and on the necessity of funny wizards!) ;)

Something I'm thinking they'll explore soon is the moral quandary faced by those left behind. If many people are looking to a Christian explanation of the Disappearance, do you think that those who are left behind no longer think they're worthy? So perhaps they're performing random acts of unkindness because hey, God doesn't want them anyway so why be good. And if Nora was left behind, then maybe that's because she's a bad person (I'm not saying she is, but that could be how some are thinking). Which is why the reverend character could become really interesting once he comes up to the fore. I'm hoping he has the same impact on the story that Locke did in "Walkabout." ;)

Eric Mak said...

Nikki, thanks for writing that. I hate feeling like I have to be ashamed of being a fan of something, and that I can't enjoy it but instead have to constantly defend it. It's good to find other people with the same dilemma.

I'm liking the dark humor on the show, and would agree that they should increase it, but it's a fine line to walk between serious drama and dark comedy. Some gems: "Would you estimate the number of your son's sexual partners as being over 20?" "I never should have told you to watch "The Wire."" "I looking to get laid." "Wait, you're a man?!"

I think the teenagers are a really wonderful element of the show. They feel very real to me. Jill, (and I'm using a little backstory from the book), is a former-future valedictorian, but the departure came just at the right time to dislodge everything steady in her life. Her mother leaves, her brother leaves. When she says "cunt" to her phys ed teacher, I think it's indicative of the way kids behave after the departure. A lot of them probably just quit school, and the ones who stayed have to be handled with delicacy, because push them too much and they'll drop out too. So Jill is this teenager who's just realized the adult world doesn't know a god damned thing, (why respect the authority of adults who run around like chickens with they're heads cut off?), and she's kind of been given this power of acceptable rebellion.

And I'm already seeing a deep connection between Kevin and Jill because of this. Kevin is this good looking guy, tattoos smothering his body, most likely gained during some rebellious moment from his youth. He's literally lusted after by many women in town, but he's seriously intent on being a strong moral compass. They're like mirror images right now.

Suzanne said...

Nikki, I am so glad you are reviewing this show. Your blog is my absolute favorite when it comes to reviews for shows, so it is always a treat when I find that you have picked one up to review.

Thanks for your comments about Lost. I feel exactly as you do and have met others who have experienced what we have been experiencing. I think it might be the downside to the show having been so popular with a wide audience. There were people with many different tastes in entertainment and expectations about the show watching it. Most of the shows I really love have much smaller followings, so I wonder if the audience members tend to have more in common when it comes to their expectations about a show. Who knows! Different people just like different things, and I really wish those who have a problem with Lost would get over it and let those of us who love it so much have more of an opportunity to remember it fondly. I am sure no one feels this way more than Damon Lindeloff, though.

The second episode of this show was pretty good. It didn't grab me like the pilot did, but I am willing to stick with it through its first season.

As for the actions of the teenage girls, I view them as being all about rebellion, especially the friend. I think she stole the hand cream just to be able to show that she could and that she likes taking crazy chances. Jill probably feels more alive when she is around the friend, which is why she is following along. I don't see their actions as being that far removed from some of the scenarios that were in My So Called Life with Angela and Rayann. Of course, everything has been intensified after the Disappearance, so their actions seem more extreme than normal teenage rebellion.