Two original releases hit Netflix on Friday: a 13-episode series called 13 Reasons Why and a feature film called The Discovery. I watched both, and it’s safe to say I had a depressing weekend.
13 Reasons Why, which I’ve seen 2 episodes of so far, is a dark, glossy teen mystery exploring the aftermath of a girl’s suicide, her motivations revealed via a collection of pre-recorded cassette tapes distributed to her classmates. It’s a solid show: never veering into soap as it attempts to deconstruct high-school stereotypes. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.
The Discovery, a decidedly more compact but equally grim work, stars Robert Redford as a scientist who claims to have determinate proof of an afterlife, leading to a mass number of suicides around the world. His son (Jason Segel), a heaven-sceptic, starts investigating the side effects of this new ‘post-life reality’.
The Discovery, which starts promisingly realistic but descends into anInception/Eternal Sunshine-esque study of dream and memory, owes much tonally to The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof’s excellent HBO series; this decade’s best existentialist television work. The Leftovers takes place in a world in which 2% of humans have vanished into thin air (though the show isn’t interested in where they went — it definitely isn’t science fiction) and those left behind are uniformly miserable. Episodes deal with the role religion, philosophy, love and art play in an extended, universal grieving process, largely through the eyes of Justin Theroux’s conflicted former cop Kevin Garvey and his immediate family. The Leftovers is an exceptional series, but has been completely shunned by audiences and Emmy voters. The critical reception awarded to 2015’s second season was strong enough to warrant a third and final run, beginning in two weeks.
Yet The Leftovers could really do with a broad audience: it’s smart, surprising and- even when it fails- more ambitious than anything else on TV. Not dissimilar, I suppose, from Lindelof’s previous drama: Lost. For me, the first hour of The Discovery played like an extremely watered-down version of the show, showing Segel and Rooney Mara’s characters struggling with shifting social perceptions of death with the same dead-eyed despair as Kevin Garvey.
Lindelof, who almost killed his career by introducing Lost’s smoke monster and disappearing island mysteries, knows better than to inject The Leftoverswith anything overtly supernatural: Garvey wanders through chemically-induced hallucinations and witnesses divine intervention (Season 3 is promising something akin to the End of Days), but almost everything comes down to luck and coincidence. The Leftovers dares us to be cynical and disbelieving: I’m the most cynical, faithless person I know, and I find it utterly compelling.
It seems that TV heading in the direction of artist-driven prestige content, with HBO and Netflix continuing to fund high-quality but not-exactly-profitable programming, has allowed creators to make their shows grimmer and grimmer, less and less broad in their appeal, and more intelligent as a result. The Leftovers is one of the most thought-provoking shows I’ve ever seen, but I can’t think of many friends to whom I’d recommend it. I’d rather not hear their complaints that it’s “so depressing” or that it “ruined their day”. Nobody likes being made unhappy: I always have DVDs of Spongebobon hand to cheer myself up, and only revisit American Beauty at the height of summer, but The Leftovers doesn’t make me feel bad about the world or about my own existence: in a strange, atheistic way, it makes me value elements of humanity just as much as a show like Parenthood, which presents the family unit as a source of life and joy.
The families on The Leftovers, and the relationships in The Discovery, are largely destructive and cold, but shouldn’t that inspire to viewer to improve their own situation? In this area, The Discovery was not so successful: attempts at levity, such as a scene of Segel and Mara robbing a corpse from a morgue, caught me as ill-judged and unwarranted: Six Feet Under this is not.The Leftovers is quite a funny show, but it doesn’t resort to silent comedy tropes to gain a laugh: what’s funny about The Leftovers is how damn miserable everybody is, but how enjoyable it is to watch them be that way.