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TV reviews: Harder to laugh at Veep now that truth is stranger than fiction

The Leftovers is a weird little show that not a lot of people watch. But if you like your storytelling deep, surprising, artful and occasionally bonkers, you should be one of them.

Set in a world reeling from the sudden disappearance of 2 per cent of its population several years ago, when they literally vanished into thin air, the story is not so much about this seemingly supernatural event, but what happens to those left behind.

Survivors include New York police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his family who, like many others, are still coming to terms with their confusion and grief and, above all, grasping for an explanation.

The fallout of the Sudden Departure, as it is called, is wholly psycho-social - the physical environment is unchanged, a nice riposte to the done-to-death apocalypse-as-survival-adventure genre.

Ann Dowd in the compelling final season of The Leftovers.
Lindsay Duncan in the compelling final season of The Leftovers. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

So what happens when a widespread phenomenon defies both scientific reason and religion? The Leftovers fashions a compelling psychological drama out of an idea you would sooner encounter in cognitive science and philosophy: that the mind abhors an explanatory vacuum and either breaks or fills in the gaps when there are no ready answers.

Thus, dogs and people go mad, families such as Kevin's and new wife Nora's (Carrie Coon) are torn apart, and people join cults, turn to preachers, clairvoyants or anyone and anything that offers solace and distraction.

There is a surge in religiosity and many believe the Departure to be the Biblical "rapture", whereby the devout are spirited to heaven.

But this does not sit well with the believers left behind, including Nora's preacher brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston), who seeks an alternative divine reasoning.

The first season was intriguing, beautifully melancholic, yet also suffocatingly gloomy and slow at times. But those who stuck with it were rewarded by a show that has blossomed into a considered, moving and often transcendent rumination on loss and faith that is like nothing else on TV.

The show's best season was its second, when it began really experimenting with genre and tone. The Garveys move to a Texas town deemed a holy refuge because it was unscathed by the Departure. But then a neighbour's daughter disappears, Matt's catatonic wife wakes up and Kevin starts to believe he is talking to dead people in parallel dimensions.

In the third and final season, which debuted this week, the family travels to Australia, where Kevin's father is trying to stop a flood he thinks will end the world on the seventh anniversary of the Departure, and Kevin is haunted by his visions once again.

This sounds nuts, but it works and it is a credit to the actors that they sell it as a credible family drama throughout. The final season also pulls off another unexpected tonal shift, with several whimsical, absurd and laugh-out-loud moments even as it aches with sadness.

The creators warned fans there would be no big reveal about what happened to the Departed, but the seven episodes of Season 3 sent to reviewers do appear to clarify some of The Leftovers' mythology and point towards a satisfying conclusion. But this is the sort of show that respects its audience too much to spoonfeed it the answers.

It is a brave storyteller who does this with popular entertainment these days, so it may be a while before you see another series like it.

US Vice- President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis- Dreyfus, above) continues in her misadventures on Veep.
US Vice-President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis- Dreyfus, above) continues in her misadventures on Veep. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Veep, on the other hand, comes from a rich tradition of similar shows satirising politics, charting the misadventures of a fictional Vice-President - and, briefly, President - of the United States, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a bungling politician whose narcissism is outmatched only by her ambition.

  • VIEW IT / THE LEFTOVERS SEASON 3

  • HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Mondays, 9am and 9pm (Seasons 1 to 3)

    4.5/5 stars

    Previous seasons available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602) and HBO on StarHub Go

    VEEP SEASON 6

    HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Mondays, 10.30am and 10.30pm; HBO On Demand and HBO On StarHub Go

    4/5 stars

    Seasons 1 to 5 are available on StarHub Go

For five seasons since 2012, the Veep writers and cast have turned in virtuoso performances in almost every sub-genre of comedy, elevating even profanity to an artform with their endlessly creative epithets.

Typically, the punchline is that the powers of corridor overflow with amoral, egotistical and stunningly incompetent souls.

These jokes are a lot less edgy, especially when whatever venality Meyer and other characters can muster pales in comparison with the real thing. It is impossible to watch the first three episodes of the new season without thinking of the Donald Trump administration.

The show is still thoroughly enjoyable, though - showrunner David Mandel's writers' room still a well-oiled joke machine.

Once the latter has adjusted to the Trump era, the series may recover some of its more pointed satirical edge. For now, watching it feels like escapism - it is actually comforting to be able to laugh at horrible, idiotic politicians without worrying about the real-world consequences of their actions.

Correction note: The caption for the first picture has been edited to reflect the correct name of the actress. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'Artful storytelling that grows on you'. Print Edition | Subscribe