Before my husband and I watch TV together, or when we go to a movie in an actual theater, or when I recommend a novel to him, I turn on my bleakness detector.
Will the story draw us into a dark cave of oblivion, where there is no hope and where human nature is a spider-web-thin lie, where all the characters are selfish or self-destructive or just selfless and empty like machines? Is it possible that the ending of the story will leave us in a stupor of existential despair, clinging to our glasses of warm milk because there is no God, or there is a God but he’s a big old pill? Because my husband is having none of that, not since I chose the DVD of “Affliction” on our fourth or fifth date and savagery and gloom won the day.
So I didn’t bother to invite him to join me for “The Leftovers,” a powerful and powerfully bleak new HBO series. The show is a jittery, operatic drama about how the residents of suburban Mapleton, N.Y., grapple with the specter of random loss, how, after 2 percent of the world’s population disappears, they divide into “Oz”-like factions and chafe against one another. The nihilists, the believers in God’s will, those seeking a scientific explanation — they all derive their own meanings from the Sudden Departure. Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, “The Leftovers” is well done, but at its center are deeply unsettling questions about life.
Nope, not for my husband, but definitely for me. I’m drawn to some of the grimmest, most soul-searing of TV shows, movies, and books, finding redemption in the process of hearing stories that withhold it. I resonate to Thomas Hardy’s soft spirals down into fateful misery, as well as to the group portrait of spiritual starvation in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” Among my top TV dramas are some of the most impossible visions of mankind, from the imprisoning freedoms of “Rectify” to the moral and family devolution that was a central arc of “Breaking Bad.”
Why are some of us attracted to the stories that dig so deeply into suffering, angst, metaphysical coldness, misanthropy, and, in the case of “The Leftovers,” animus and desperation? The classic answer to that question often includes the same word people use when justifying reality TV: schadenfreude. Watching others expose their wounds makes some of us feel better about our own lives. We’re enjoying the characters’ pain because it reminds us that we’re lucky, relatively; it’s the frenemy approach to being an audience member, as you secretly enjoy the other’s misfortune.
For me, schadenfreude has little to do with it. What I’m finding when I watch “Leaving Las Vegas” or when I read almost anything by Cormac McCarthy — but particularly “The Road” and “Child of God” — is brutal honesty. It’s life stripped down to fundamentals, the ugliest of possible truths revealed despite the fact that most people don’t want to hear them.
Bleak stories don’t traffic in the denial of desolation, which we all feel at some point, or the forced happiness that made most of 1950s-1980s TV so false and untenable. Yes, the world can be devoid of significance. Yes, man may well be a “useless passion,” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, or no more than an animal. Yes, people do get pulled down under the waves of affliction, often quite randomly. On a very basic level, hearing those realities stated — especially with extraordinary clarity, as in, say, Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” — can be appealingly confirming.
I’m not saying they’re the only truths by a long shot. I hope I never get to the point where all I want from art is confirmation of the void — to binge-watch Lars von Trier movies, re-re-reread “The Grapes of Wrath,” and put Aimee Mann and the Smiths on a loop. I fully recognize that we can and do create our own meaning, that above the void we build proverbial towers of love and intellect. Life is not a bottomless pit of sorrow, at least for me. But to openly acknowledge the extreme of despair is to recognize the full range of the human experience, to give joy its other bookend.
I still remember the first time I read Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” in my late teens. It was a sad book, and it was a potent experience. Woolf showed how one instant of time in someone’s life could reveal a long and oppressive history of childhood experiences. The world of that novel is constructed, so magnificently, around a core understanding of futility. It was consoling to hear Woolf voicing the futility, to realize that I was not alone in my hyper-awareness of the passage of time, that others feel the long suspension of difficult moments as much as the overall shortness of life. The sense of having company in the darkness, especially someone who can articulate that darkness as trenchantly as Woolf, well, that’s a nice gift.
And taking in difficult stories keeps the lure of psychic numbness at bay, as a viewer and as a person. A show like “The Leftovers” cuts to the chase and requires that you respond, not just sit back and muse or fantasize. It’s a heated-up, shock-a-minute TV microcosm of human nature and the societies and various subcultures we build. What do we do with the psychological information of loss, collectively? The show delivers raw answers.
The bitterest characters in “The Leftovers” are the members of a post-Departure cult known as “The Guilty Remnant.” These folks interpret the Departure as a philosophical assault; they stop speaking and start chain-smoking and wear only white. They’re ghosts lurking in Mapleton, existential cloisters, the shadows who haunt the memorials for the disappeared in the green of the once-innocent suburb. They’re the Westboro Baptist Church, in a weird, surreal, artsy HBO way. Watching them is stinging.
But I love thinking about that level of being in the world, wondering if maybe we all have a little Guilty Remnant inside us. My husband? Alas, no. Of course he doesn’t only want to watch “Leave It to Beaver.” But the vacuum, the suck of nothingness, the nightmare traverse of “The Vanishing”? Nah. There are nights when one of us is saying, “Give me ‘When Harry Met Sally’ or give me death,” and the other is thinking, “Give me death and lots of it.”
It’s the relationship as a compensatory rapport, a two-pan scale that, like the extreme ends of human understanding, is best when very finely balanced.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.