Writing Dead: Why Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse still ask the big questions in ‘The Leftovers,’ ‘The Returned’
Years after “Lost” went off the air, two of its co-creators, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, are still asking the big questions in “The Leftovers” and “The Returned.”
When Lost first aired in 2004, I was prepared to be hooked. Plane crashes on deserted island, people learning to survive. That’s my kind of story – Survivor without the gimmicks. Creation of a new community, a new society.
That was not going to be Lost’s story. Yes, there was an airline crash. Yes, survival was an issue. But Lost was never about day-to-day events; it had a lot of smaller stories and a much bigger ambition (if not always perfectly realized) than almost anyone – including those who stuck it through to the end – were planning on ingesting. Creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (and to a lesser degree J.J. Abrams) wanted to ask the big questions about life, death, and meaning.
I wasn’t expecting that on ABC primetime.
“One of the thematic things that was always interesting about Lost is this idea of is this arbitrary? Is it happening for a reason? And that’s the fundamental question of life,” Lindelof told me. “That’s the fundamental question of life: Is there a purpose? Am I part of some grander design?”
I bailed on Lost when it didn’t give me what I expected, and though it clearly was worth going back to, I never did. One of those things I’ll get to in the nursing home, I expect, but there’s just so much good TV and only so many hours in a day.
But then I did it again, with Lindelof’s latest TV project. Last year, I gave HBO’s The Leftovers a real kiss-off in this space. The book is always better than the movie (or the TV series), said I, and here was just the latest evidence. And then I bailed on Leftovers.
Well, I’m going to give that one another try. As shows like Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have shown us in recent years, going off the reservation in terms of telling story is all but a requirement when you’re adapting a book for the long term. A movie of the week or even a miniseries is one thing; if you’re going to spin out a slim novel like Leftovers for more than a season, you’re gonna have to rethink things. But that’s not exactly why.
I’m interested in the big questions, and now I think I have a better grip on Lindelof’s (with author Tom Perotta) mission. And Lost fans, take heed: Lindelof’s writer-in-arms Carlton Cuse is also back on TV (well, he’s been there overseeing Bates Motel and Strain) with a new adaptation of the terrific French series The Returned. It’s another show that addresses those life-shaping questions – what if the dead returned to you, unchanged and unharmed, exactly how they were at the moment of death?
“It is interesting that we’re both working on projects that grapple with the idea of life and death and loss and absence and grief,” said Cuse, who meets with Lindelof approximately once a month for lunch (though they don’t talk shop). “But The Returned and Leftovers are vastly different in the way they’re executed, even if they are exploring both of the same themes. There’s plenty of room for both shows.”
Undoubtedly so. TV doesn’t always do very well asking, or answering, the big questions; we couch potatoes are fairly happy being spoon-fed good guys and bad guys and satisfying resolution within 42 minutes of screen time, once a week. But there are shows that go deeper, and are worth grown-up consideration. In just the last week I watched the latest episode of The Walking Dead challenge me with the question of what happens when a bunch of PTSD-ridden survivors of the zombie apocalypse find Eden? Could they be the ultimate snakes in the grass? And then on The Good Wife, atheist Alicia believes her God-fearing daughter may be losing her religion, which prompts a moment (that takes place in her head) in which Richard Dawkins visits her to ask why this troubles her so much.
This is big stuff, and the fact that it happened on one of TV’s top rated shows (Dead) and on the staid, older-skewing Tiffany Network (Wife) blew me away. But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, just as I shouldn’t brush off a show because it fails to meet my preconceived notions – and actually posits more challenges to my perception of storytelling. And of what couch potatoes can absorb.
“I feel like a lot of TV shows avoid religion,” said Lindelof. “It’s a very dangerous topic and that’s why I really responded to Tom’s book. He was talking about religion in a very interesting way, and the same thing is happening in The Returned. Leftovers doesn’t deal directly with death, but it is a death metaphor. These people have departed, they’re gone. But … you didn’t get to bury them, so could they come back? That’s what we’re trying to explore here.”