Laughing as the World Burns: Humor as a Coping Mechanism on ‘The Leftovers’

The show understands the often counterintuitive ways people react to the unthinkable.

With every season, The Leftovers gets weirder and weirder. But at the same time, paradoxically, it’s become a lot more relatable, burrowing into the bizarre to find a kernel of truth about human behavior in the face of irreconcilable grief. This season, we’ve seen a group of frat bros worship a giant balloon in the shape of Gary Busey; a man who’s convinced that dogs have disguised themselves as humans and infiltrated the highest levels of government; and Mark Linn-Baker, the star of the ’80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, who tells a stunned Nora (Carrie Coon) about a mechanism created by Swedish physicists that allegedly blasts people with enough radioactive waves to send them wherever their loved ones — the two percent of the world’s population who disappeared during a rapture-like event on October 14, 2011 — have gone.

The Leftovers is a drama, and a heavy one at that; it is, after all, a show about the end of the world. But it’s also consistently funny, and in its third season in particular, it uses humor in ways that feel very true to life. Like Mad Men — another Serious Drama that never got enough credit for its wicked sense of humor — The Leftovers is funny in that absurd, spontaneous way that life can be funny. It understands that people use humor as a shield and that, particularly in times of turmoil, there’s often not much daylight between a laugh and a sob.

The whole plot of Season 3 is hysterical, if you forget about the human grief and desperation at the heart of it. Take the third episode. Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn), the father of police chief Kevin Garvey Jr. (Justin Theroux), has traveled across Australia to find Christopher Sunday (David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal clever man who Kevin is certain can provide the missing piece of his plan to stave off the End of the World. As the seven-year anniversary of the Sudden Departure looms, Kevin Sr. is sure he’s figured out the solution: Stop the inevitable Great Flood by learning and singing sacred Aboriginal songs. He’s just one song away from completing his mission, and Christopher Sunday is the man to teach it to him. Is Kevin Sr. crazy, or he is a prophet? Is his mission pathetic or inspired? One thing’s certain — it’s pretty freaking hilarious.

Here’s how Kevin Sr. came to his conclusion: After the Sudden Departure, he started hearing voices in his head and was committed to a mental institution. Eventually, he decided to listen to the voices, which told him to go to Australia. There, he headed for the Sydney Opera House, but on his way was stopped by a hippie who asked if he wanted to hear the voice of god. “So I said, ‘Fuck yeah, I want to talk to god!’” He was given a hallucinogenic drug, and woke up weeks later in a hotel room in Perth. On the TV was a chicken, Tony, which had hatched from an egg that was the only living thing in its small village to survive the Sudden Departure. Naturally, Kevin hopped on a train and went to see the chicken, which began pecking at a cassette tape in Kevin’s backpack that he’s been carrying around since 1981, when he and Kevin Jr. took a road trip to Niagara Falls and recorded their meandering conversations.

And what was the tape cued up to at the time? Kevin Sr. singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” to soothe his son during a rainstorm. After one verse, the rain stops. Clearly, Kevin concludes, this is what he must do: Sing away the Great Flood with Aboriginal folk songs. No matter that Christopher informs him the songs are meant to end drought, not rain. Kevin is convinced.

In the world of The Leftovers, everyone’s got a pet conspiracy theory — and most of them are hilarious. “Four series regulars,” Linn-Baker tells Nora, referring to his departed Perfect Strangers costars. “Three go, one stays: Me. You know what the odds of that are?” Of course, Nora — who lost her two children and her husband in the Sudden Departure — knows exactly what the odds are. It’s a funny line, but because of Nora’s history, it also carries the weight her grief.

Titled “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” the Mark Linn-Baker episode, the season’s second, is when we really start to see the cracks in Nora’s cool façade. In the Season 3 opener, she and Kevin Jr., her boyfriend, are casually dismissive of those who believe the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure spells the end of the world, making a joke of their blind faith. Nora is an investigator for the Department of Sudden Departure (DSD), which means she’s a professional skeptic, drily pointing out to a woman who claims her husband just departed that he actually had a heart attack. There are witnesses. She seems to delight in deflating people’s hopes; it’s hard to imagine the woman she was before her family disappeared, before their absence hollowed her out and rendered the very concept of faith repugnant.

Both Kevin and Nora seem, at first, like the sanest, most level-headed people in their town of Jarden, Texas. But it quickly becomes clear that all is not well: Kevin has taken to suffocating himself with a plastic dry-cleaning bag and a roll of duct tape, although when Nora catches him, he insists he always rips it off; Nora, who used to hire sex workers to shoot her in the chest while she wore a bulletproof vest, sports a cast at the beginning of the season. Her doctor tells her one of his colleagues saw her slam her own arm in her car door in the parking lot.

While some people, like Nora’s preacher brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston), dig deep into spirituality to cope with the chaotic aftermath of the Sudden Departure and its looming anniversary, Nora and Kevin use humor to refract their pain. In Sunday’s episode, “G’Day Melbourne,” Kevin accompanies Nora to Australia, where she’s supposedly going to investigate the Swedish physicists and their radioactive machine — which she tells her bosses and her boyfriend is clearly a scam. When Kevin asks why she has to make the trip, Nora deadpans, “The DSD has their hands full with the coming apocalypse.” But the viewer sees the truth in her madly hopeful eyes: She will do anything to see her children again, even if — perhaps especially if — it means risking her life.

There’s been a lot of chatter in the past few months about how scarily relatable certain TV shows and films are in light of Trump’s presidency. The Handmaid’s Tale is a frightening fable about a future in which women’s reproductive rights are totally stripped away; Get Out is a razor-sharp mediation on the myth of post-racial America; The Americans is suddenly all too real in its depiction of Cold War-era Russian spies infiltrating the U.S.

But of all the ways in which pop culture is reflecting the mood of the country post-inauguration, intentionally or not, The Leftovers feels the most relevant. Not in its politics; the show is pretty much a-political. But creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book on which the series is based, understand the often counterintuitive ways people react to the unthinkable. In a world saturated with irony and soaked in pop-culture references, it’s far too on-the-nose to feel your actual feelings; instead, you deflect. You make jokes. Why do you think SNL is enjoying its best ratings in over twenty years? It’s not because of the biting wit.

No, we laugh because we’re afraid, and because it’s more socially acceptable than screaming. It’s funny that there’s a guy who thinks dogs have infiltrated the federal government, but it’s also kind of terrifying. It’s funny when Mark Linn-Baker starts babbling about Low-Amplitude Denzinger Radiation, until we realize he’s dead serious. At this particular moment — when a woman is facing jail time for laughing at Jeff Sessions and the FCC is investigating Stephen Colbert over a dick joke — we know a little something about that feeling.

 

The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.