Olivia Colman and David Tennant in ITV's Broadchurch.

This article is a preview from the Spring 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Loss is the subject of some of the best television series of the last year or so. Freud distinguished between mourning and melancholia, where mourning involves relinquishing the lost object and melancholia entails morbidly holding on. These series track the painful – perhaps permanently interrupted – process whereby melancholia becomes mourning

The problem for the characters in the enthralling HBO series The Leftovers is that mourning cannot properly begin. The series is about the consequences of a cataclysmic event – referred to as the Sudden Departure – in which, inexplicably, without warning and without leaving a trace, two per cent of the world’s population disappears. The series was adapted from his own novel by Tom Perotta, along with Damon Lindelhof, the co-creator of Lost. In some ways, The Leftovers is like Lost in negative. Where Lost focused on those who had gone over to the other side, The Leftovers concentrates on the ones left behind. The phrase “left behind” is not neutral, of course – it was the title of a series of best-selling Christian millenarian novels about the End Times. The first temptation is to see the Sudden Departure as a religious event – the greatest religious event of all, the Rapture. Yet the Sudden Departure appears to have taken people at random: abusers as well as altruists, celebrities as well as mediocrities, believers as well as non-believers. One of the most mordantly amusing threads in the series sees Reverend Matt Jamison – an unstable compound of bitterness, compassion and enduring faith, superbly played by Christopher Eccleston – producing a home-made scandal sheet whose sole purpose is to tarnish the name of those who were taken, in order to prove that the Departure cannot have been the Rapture. Or is this the form that the Rapture would supposedly take for those left behind? It would not be an event with immediately clear meaning, but an unintelligible, traumatic interruption, producing disorientation and anger as much as sadness.

Yet The Leftovers does not concern itself overmuch with the enigma of the Sudden Departure. Lost became self-parodically enmeshed in a madly proliferating web of embedded mysteries that by the end seemed as if they were being invented simply to keep the intrigue going, and could never be satisfactorily resolved. The Leftovers offers no hint that its central mystery will ever be explained. If the first season is anything to go by, this absence of explanation is the point. The series is set three years after the Sudden Departure, and by now the event has become part of the assumed background of the characters’ lives: a vast epistemic void which they are simultaneously always ignoring and negotiating. The Sudden Departure is then like trauma as such: an unfathomable puncturing of meaning, a senseless spasm of sheer contingency.

The fact that the nature of the Sudden Departure is never directly confronted means that the question which genre the series belongs to – religious drama? Science fiction? Metaphysical fiction? – is suspended. The dominant mode is an often brutal naturalism; but a naturalism forever haunted and conditioned by something it cannot assimilate. Some have viewed the Sudden Departure as an allegory of 9/11, but the analogy isn’t convincing. The Leftovers belongs to a moment deprived of the certainties possessed by those prosecuting the War on Terror and their opponents. There is no one to blame in The Leftovers – and there are no bodies to mourn. Without these, the population turns to rage and brooding depression. Familes disintegrate, even families such as the Garveys, the lead characters, who did not lose a member in the Departure. Social cohesion is always threatening to unravel. New belief systems sprout like couch grass in an abandoned garden – for in a world in which sense has gone, who can adjudicate between the credible and the ridiculous any more?

In some ways, the most authentic response to the Sudden Departure comes from the “cult”, the Guilty Remnant. The rules that members follow have the eerie arbitrariness, the oneiric montage-logic, of a genuine cult. They are required to wear all white, to remain silent, and – in a symbol of their lack of belief in a viable future – to always smoke whilst in public. But the Remnant have no cockamamie beliefs. In fact they seem to have no positive beliefs at all; their purpose is simply to retain a fidelity to the senseless event of the Departure. In their joyless white, they are mute spectres forever insisting that the Departure must not be be forgotten. Their point is not moral – the departed should be remembered – but philosophical: reality has fundamentally altered, and this must be faced, not denied.

In the UK, ITV’s Broadchurch confronts loss in a more intimate, less metaphysically fraught way. The series centres on the death of a child, Danny Latimer, in a fictional seaside town. While it was clearly British television’s response to wintry Scandinavian thrillers such as The Killing, the first series of Broadchurch (2013) was not merely pastiche. There was a poise in the way it combined the whodunnit intrigue of the traditional thriller with a more subdued tracking of the impact of the death on the town. The series also deftly negotiated the line between sentimentalising a local community and finding potential killers everywhere. In the course of the investigation, the “close-knit community” that rallies around after the killing soon becomes a mob, which – stoked by tabloid insinuations – hounds a local shopkeeper to his death.

The second series of Broadchurch, halfway through at the time of writing, offered a clever solution to the seemingly intractable problem of how the series could continue once the killer was revealed. Another murder in the same town would definitively trip the series over into melodrama, yet abandoning the whodunnit element would deprive Broadchurch of one of its narrative drivers. As it turned out, the whodunnit was provided by an old case that the lead detective, Hardy (David Tennant), had failed to solve – a case that haunted him in the first series – while the ongoing study of the effects of the murder of Danny Latimer was continued with a trial, prompted when the killer, Joe Miller, retracts his confession. Yet the second series lacks the surefootedness of the first, and it is hard not to feel that it’s somewhat superfluous and unneccessary.

If Broadchurch was ITV’s answer to The Killing, then The Missing was the BBC’s response to Broadchurch. In Broadchurch, the grieving family gradually has to adjust to the death of a child, to give up melancholia so that they can begin mourning. In The Missing, this process is indefinitely stalled – the child whose disappearance is at the heart of the series is precisely missing, not yet (confirmed) dead. On holiday in France in 2006, five-year-old Ollie Hughes disappeared in a bar. The series took us down many blind alleys in pursuing the truth behind his disappearance. It ran through a virtual inventory of folk devils, including paedophiles, corrupt politicians, drug addicts and Eastern European criminal gangs, before concluding in bathos – Ollie’s disappearance turned out to be the result of an alcoholic accident, not any intentional malignancy.

In theory, there was something admirable about this controlled deflation. In practice, however, there was something dissatisfying about the way it was handled, which made the series feel like a shaggy-dog story, leading nowhere very interesting. Along the way, there were some memorable performances – most notably Tchéky Karyo as detective Julien Baptiste, a charismatic mix of wisdom, compassion and tenacity – but the most haunting scenes came at the beginning and the end of the series. First, there was the wrenching moment when Tony Hughes (James Nesbit) lost Ollie. Some of this power came from the very banality of the scene (one of the most notable aspects of the series was its nondescript settings, a contrast with the striking landscapes of Broadchurch): a bar which could be anywhere, a moment’s distraction, a hand momentarily released, a sudden contingency that irrevocably and irretrievably transforms life, pitching Ollie’s parents into hell. The final scene showed that Tony, now a dishevelled wreck, utterly consumed by obsession, would never escape that hell. Unable to accept that Ollie is dead – his body is never recovered – Tony is now in Russia, serially harrassing children that he momentarily convinces himself might be his lost son. It is a horrible image of secular purgatory. Mourning will never begin; Tony is condemned to a melancholia-without-end that he doesn’t even want to escape.