Two episodes into the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers, the beleaguered suburban police chief Kevin Garvey faced an existential crisis because of a bagel. He placed its two halves onto the conveyor belt of the office toaster—but no bagel, toasted or untoasted, materialized on the other side. The camera peered out from inside the toaster’s maw as Kevin peered in; the actor Justin Theroux flared his nostrils and arched his jet-black eyebrows into a visage of horror. Kevin violently slammed the machine against the counter. Still no bagel emerged. Where the hell had it gone?
Kevin, the viewer could guess, was considering two rather bonkers answers. One was that he had lost his mind and not his bagel, and would soon join his delusional father in a mental hospital. The other was that the bagel had supernaturally vanished—in the same way that 140 million people, 2 percent of the Earth’s population, had inexplicably disappeared on October 14, 2011. Either way, Kevin was reevaluating his perception of the world—and viewers were doing the same as they struggled to make sense of what they’d seen on-screen.
The scene was typical of The Leftovers’ three-season run, which began in 2014 and ended in June, though it was hardly the strangest situation the show presented. Imagining the aftermath of an event like the Christian rapture, but implemented in an inscrutable way and without confirmation by God, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s series often felt like a blackly comic dare to see how far a handsomely realist television drama could push an aesthetic of disorientation. Dream sequences, freaky coincidences, and disturbing images were as much the driving source of thrills as the plot action was. Essential to viewers’ appreciation of the series was an appetite for philosophical pondering and the Kafkaesque. Critics, it turned out, were hungry for those things—they came to love the show. But the audience remained small, which seemed like a sign that few other TV creators would head down a path this bewildering.