In Conversation: Tom Perrotta Finishes “The Leftovers”

Halfway through the show's final season, the HBO show's co-creator reflects on what it all means.

The final season of HBO’s The Leftovers is brilliant. As a disciple of the Church of Lost, an apostle of apocalypse narratives, an end-of-days evangelist, I feel fairly confident in preaching the perfection of the series’ latter days. Or so far, anyway. Critics were given the seven penultimate episodes and perhaps the denouement destroys the epic beauty in the communion of narrative and aesthetic that personifies the first seven-eighths of the season.

But I doubt it. The Leftovers is a rare breed of series, getting stronger as it goes on. From the mysterious disappearance of 2 percent of the global population in the first season to the brink of Armageddon in this one, and throughout all the flights of magical realism in between, the audience has been confronted by discussions of love, loss, faith, forgiveness, and futility in a post-truth era where on the small screen and main street, all we really want is answers, closure, and verity. Season three of The Leftovers aspires to complete its pilgrimage and ours. It’s a wandering populated by stunning performances from Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Scott Glenn, Kevin Carroll, Christopher Eccleston, and the rest of the cast—an ensemble that has arced and swayed with skill and grace like few others.

Tom Perrotta, upon whose 2011 novel the series is based, has had his work interpreted by some of the industry’s most interesting and dynamic auteurs: Alexander Payne with Election, Peyton Reed with Bad Haircut, and Todd Field with Little Children. But his collaboration with Damon Lindelof (co-creator of both The Leftovers and Lost) goes beyond artistic adoption, as the series departs the page and expands into a vibrant and beautiful new universe that reimagines the possibilities of adaptation and storytelling. The Leftovers and Perrotta use the series’ final season to confront their characters’ pasts, their faiths, and whether beards mean the end of the world.

[This interview contains light spoilers.]

Season three is more geopolitical. The narrative expands to Australia and includes more of the “real world.” What role does that shift in setting play in completing the series?

I think that there’s been a steady expansion of the sphere of the show. The first season we were focused on an idea in the book, which was the way to handle this global event in the storytelling fashion, to have a microcosm, to stick with this one family in this one town. I would argue that season two was trying to look at a larger American context. I think it really helped to have a black family living next door to the Garveys, to move to Texas and think about a Holy Land in an American context, and to use national parks as a way into that. And you’re right: to then up and move to Australia for season three brings an implicit globalism to the story and shows our characters literally going to the end of the Earth to see if they can find a little peace for themselves.

It seems to me that this season has more of a sense of humor. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. Is that something that you’ve noticed?

Yes! I remember one day thinking, “Oh The Leftovers, the funniest show on television!” Which was not where we started, as you know. Damon and I did an interview recently and he said, “I really just didn’t understand that the show could be funny in season one.” He rightly focused on every one of our characters’ grieving. [They’re all] lost and bewildered. But even grief can be funny and absurd, and I think it only helped the show—part of that expansion we talked about. There was that geographic expansion but also an expansion in terms of our tone. The show can accommodate a lot more tonalities than we originally realized.

Especially in the relationship between Kevins Sr. and Jr. [Glenn and Theroux].

Some of these characters [have] felt the weight of their history. I agree with you about Scott [Glenn] and Justin [Theroux], but I think you really see it in Amy Brenneman [Laurie]. The first season she was right in the heart of the chaos and a shell of a human being, but since then she’s emerged from it and has a kind of clarity that comes partially from her training as a psychologist. She’s the first one who has been through hell and come out on the other side. There’s a compassion and understanding that [Brenneman] brings to it. She understands and accepts everyone in the show, and it’s kind of a beautiful thing to see.

Have you read the Tom Robbins essay “In Defiance of Gravity?

[Laughs.] No, I haven’t. I know Robbins as a fiction writer but not an essayist or narrative theorist.

The essay addresses the prevalence of sadness in contemporary fiction; how Freud said, “Wit is the denial of suffering.” I couldn’t help but think about that as I watched season three.

“There’s something about adding a kind of lightness to this storyline that’s been liberating.”

I like that idea, too. One of the things that’s become clear as the show’s gone on is that our characters are engaged in a wide variety of coping mechanisms, and to think that wit or humor has become one of those is a really interesting way to think about that movement within the show. Damon [and] I felt it was a little too dark in the first season. There’s something about adding a kind of lightness to this storyline that’s been liberating, and we had a lot of fun this year in the writers’ room that maybe we didn’t in the past. There’s just a lot of laughing and shaking heads like, “Are we really going to do this?” And the answer was always, “Yup, we’re going to do this.”

Did that have anything to do with the fact it was the last season—the completion of the narrative?

I think the show is just written in a very different way this year. Normally we would create a situation and then just explore it or follow where it led. This year, because we knew we were ending, the first conversation we had was: “What’s the last scene of the show?” And then we determined everything we did in relationship to that and leading us to that place—not necessarily in a straight line but we knew where we were going.

Conversations of the Apocalypse, or of nuclear war, are not rare in our news cycle, or at least not among bar stool and water cooler pundits. Did you consider the current political climate when you were working on season three?

I wish I could say that we did, but we finished production in the fall, before the election, which means the bulk of the writing was done at a time when Trump seemed like a very unlikely scenario. I started writing the book in 2009 when the financial crisis was very recent, and I remember the sort of vertigo, the feeling of, “Oh wow, the world we lived in that was solid and stable and privileged, it could just wash away in a moment,” and we could be back in a depression scenario. I think for those of us who are lucky enough to have good jobs or somehow secure lives, that was a blip, but I think a lot of people, in a lot of the country, their way of life ended recently. And those were the people who I think were willing to vote for Trump. So I think politics caught up with the terror that was at the bottom of the story somewhere.

And who’d have thought the real world narrative would get weirder than your creative narrative.

Philip Roth said that fiction was going to get harder to write as reality was outstripping it at every turn. He is a prophet.

Tom Perrotta and Carrie Coon on the set of “The Leftovers” / image courtesy of HBO

I heard you argue recently on the Living Reminders podcast that The Leftovers was, “about the persistence of the religious impulse in an era that wants to be scientific.” How do you think season three addresses that argument?

This is where we’ll probably get close to spoilers, though a couple of reviews have already mentioned it. This machine designed by physicists [that could possibly reunite Coon’s character with her children], a machine that runs on faith… It’s the intersection of the most sophisticated science and the most primitive human impulse.

“I’ve always been a skeptic of apocalyptic thinking, and the show is about how the world keeps on not ending.”

In both the season one and two openers, with the cavewoman and the Millerites standing on their respective roofs, there is just a sense in the whole project of The Leftovers that we are not different from those people. The same sort of raw terror, desperate religious desire, is right beneath our scientific surface.

Apocalypse narratives in film and TV like to attach the trope of the beard to Armageddon, and there’s a lot of beards in season three. In a peak beard society, do you fear the end of the world?

I’ve always been a skeptic of apocalyptic thinking, and the show is about how the world keeps on not ending. Every generation has thought this, every religion has its own [version of the End of Days]. [Christians] thought Jesus would come back from the dead and that would be the end of the story. And he didn’t come back, so religion had to evolve by creating a different narrative where the end is forever deferred but right around the corner. The show fits in that space; what does it mean when the world is ending and you have to keep living your life?

I didn’t think I’d get that from a peak beard question.

[Laughs.] Well, Damon is a very smart and playful writer and he understood the iconic power of the beard. I grew a beard for the season… And now it’s gone. I didn’t want to feel left out on set.

What’s it like to transition from individual nature of novel writing to the collaborative reality of TV? What’s it like to cede control of your universe?

That happened earlier in my career in that I’ve had a couple of excellent films made from my novels. I didn’t have a traumatic experience in transferring things to screen. [Though] TV has been so much more collaborative for me. Season one used up the novel, and season two we started with a blank slate. But a good part of season one was fresh imaginings, so right from the beginning I went from being the driver of the car to being sometimes a passenger, sometimes a driver, sometimes in the [backseat.] Damon will tell you that that first year was the hardest in that we were learning to trust each other. I was learning how to cede control to him, and we had some rocky moments. And when the show started to settle down, I realized that it was so much cooler to be involved in something that was transforming before my eyes into this thing I never could have imagined.

When you ceded control to Alexander Payne for Election, it was still an adaptation of the book, a document. But now there are characters who at one point only existed in your head indulging in new stories.

Kevin Garvey [Jr.] has so little in common with the Kevin Garvey of the book. That shift was really eye popping for me. He was a mayor and he had a very simple impulse, and that was, “Let’s shake this off, let’s go back to the totally satisfying way of life we had before. This was a one-time event, it’s over now.” And obviously you can’t go back. That character wasn’t dramatic enough. It was HBO’s instinct to put him more in the fray, that we needed more conflict because the show is so inherently dramatic. And then Damon had a very strong desire to give him a religious journey, which is not something I imagined for him.

In the expanding universe of TV and film—from Election to The Leftovers—how do you see the change in their relationship with literature?

In the ’90s, indie film seemed like the thing that was going to save us from a particularly bleak moment in Hollywood. And TV was part of that bleak mainstream entertainment complex. I don’t think I was paying attention to TV. I remember when Soderbergh, Spike Lee, David O. Russell, and Alexander Payne started making those indie films, it felt like, “Thank god somebody is trying to tell a story that isn’t pumped full of bullshit.” It’s not a mistake that a lot of those people have migrated into TV…where art can be made, when it used to be the antithesis of that. People are still operating in an indie space in film, it just seems less culturally central. TV, at this moment, feels like part of a vital conversation. FL

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