The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-17)
A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
While the collection lacks cohesion, the entries are consistently strong when considered in isolation; consequently, Apocalypse TV might work best as a media studies reference tool or even as a springboard into future projects.”
Television shows about the apocalypse remain a hot commodity, despite (or perhaps because of) reality’s increasingly dystopic appearance. Besides the plethora of doomsday programs already saturating TV and streaming services, 2021 will see the release of some new, high-profile projects: FX’s comic-book adaptation Y: The Last Man, HBO’s The Last of Us (based, of course, on the immensely-popular videogame), and Netflix’s Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness (see the latter parenthetical note). What draws us to such despairing narratives, and what might they have to say about our current lived experience? Apocalypse TV: Essays on Society and Self at the End of the World (McFarland, 2020) grapples with these and other questions.
The title says it all. These shows are not simply about the end of the world; they are, arguably, contemporaneous with it. In their introduction, editors Michael G. Cornelius and Sherry Ginn propose a troubling possibility: “[I]f we believe we are living in the apocalypse, and the very real, very bleak news of everyday life seems to confirm that we are, does it truly matter whether the world is actually ending?” (4). Though rhetorical in nature, the question illustrates an important point: Our planet, like all living things, is constantly hurtling toward its inevitable demise. The end is perpetually nigh, and to think otherwise is to deny death itself. Fortunately, the book’s contributors are not interested in wallowing in self-pity or sounding the alarm bell; for the most part, their analyses are fleet-footed and peppered with some much-needed humor.
The twelve essays are thoughtfully arranged so as to be in conversation with one another. The two opening chapters, William S. Allen’s “Apocalyptic Television, Hobbes’s Moral Psychology and the Tenuous Nature of Liberal Democratic Values” and Sherry Ginn’s “Post-Apocalyptic Competition and Cooperation in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Walking Dead,” address various societies’ complicity with subjugation for the sake of maintaining “order.” Derek R. Sweet’s “Social Life and Death in The Leftovers: Surviving the Personal Apocalypse” and Michael G. Cornelius’ “‘How many times have I died?’: Time Loops, Post-Human Reversion and the Editable Self in The Magicians” explore how crises of identity in the latter show and miscommunication in the former paint more intimate renditions of the end times. The text’s arrangement indicates a general progression from the epic to the understated, the communal to the individual.
Other entries look to the past, exploring post-apocalyptic series which preceded our current media landscape. Most impressive is Fernando-Gabriel Pagnoni Berns, Juan Ignacio Juvé, and Emiliano Aguilar’s “The Long Winter of Discontent: The Changing Society of Survivors.” A novelistic, character-driven drama about those attempting to reconstruct civilization in the wake of an epidemic, Survivors – which aired on the BBC from 1975 to 1977 – seems to have been considerably ahead of its time. Just as contemporary shows tap into our increasingly-complex zeitgeist – Westworld’s popularity, for instance, has coincided with a rising fascination with (and fear of) artificial intelligence – Survivors “mirrors the social context of the British 1970s, in which people were made to feel that anomie was gaining ground, with a weak government not strong enough to face the social crises shaking the country” (63).
Long-form television may very well be an ideal vehicle for these kinds of stories – their dozens of hours of footage capturing how “risk…becomes a continuing phenomenon that suffuses the post-apocalyptic world rather than a solvable problem” (77) – but I wonder if a 200-page collection is the best way to package analyses of them. Cornelius, Ginn, and their selected writers cast too wide a net, one which covers so much space that it’s hard to pin down their intended audience. These shows require dedication, with viewers sometimes tuning in over the course of several years (and, more often than not, enduring diminishing returns in quality). The Walking Dead has been lumbering along for over a decade now, with no indication of letting up anytime soon, and I’m not sure how many Hobbes scholars will have seen enough of it to care about its commentary on humanity’s “state of nature.” By the same token, diehard American fans (i.e., people in their 20s-40s) will probably not have heard of Survivors.
Some chapters are just plain baffling. Tony Perrello and C. Anne Engert’s “Driven to Extinction, Again: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and the Irresistible Apocalypse” addresses how the show “reflects the long American history of tension between the nation’s pastoral nostalgia for ‘an undefiled, green republic’…and its glorification of a technological manifest destiny” (94). A sort of cognitive dissonance sets in, though, when their lucid argument is juxtaposed with clunky descriptions of “a quasi-reptilian, humanoid race whose leader…communicates telepathically with a few chosen humans and with dinosaurs” (87). Such exposition-heavy passages reveal the book’s central flaw: Readers must be more than a little familiar with the series therein. How many Leftovers fanatics have sat through Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, a ‘90s cartoon that lasted for one season? Is the latter worth sitting through in order to better appreciate the authors’ (admittedly engaging) interpretation? I suspect not.
While the collection lacks cohesion, the entries are consistently strong when considered in isolation; consequently, Apocalypse TV might work best as a media studies reference tool or even as a springboard into future projects. Sweet’s piece on The Leftovers, particularly his conceptualization of a “personal apocalypse,” hints at what could (and should) become a longer, richer piece. “In its rejection of a grand metanarrative, design, or purpose for life,” he writes, “The Leftovers presents a convincing argument in favor of…acknowledgment as the means by which individuals might come together” (145). Like the best television series, such insights are relevant far beyond the screen.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.