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‘The Leftovers’ Turned a Joke Cameo Into an Emotional Gut Punch

‘Perfect Strangers’ actor Mark Linn-Baker helped the show make a punch line haunting

(HBO)
(HBO)

Because The Leftovers is not a pure exercise in emotional sadism, cocreators Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof are careful to include some comic relief: Jill Garvey making a crack about the end of the world during a family reunion; a running gag about how the entire cast of Perfect Strangers has disappeared save Mark Linn-Baker. Because The Leftovers is one of the most unflinchingly empathetic shows on television, it then turned Linn-Baker’s pain into the emotional fulcrum of an entire episode.

The chapter went all in on the Strangers theme from the jump, starting with the title: “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” the catchphrase of Linn-Baker’s onscreen cousin and roommate, Balki Bartokomous. The motif continued with the opening credits, which ditched Iris Dement’s eerily pertinent “Let the Mystery Be” for the Perfect Strangers theme song, whose platitude-filled lyrics and Muzak-y instrumentals make it a textbook example of the “’80s sitcom jingle” genre. This is no passing reference, the montage tells us. This is the heart of where we’re headed.

Foreshadowed as it may have been, the sound of Linn-Baker’s voice at the other end of Nora Durst’s phone line is a pleasant surprise — the kind that reminds you of the infinite possibilities of television, a medium where one season’s casual joke can become next season’s dramatic anchor. The shock is certainly more pleasant than what Linn-Baker has to say next: He’s found a way for Nora to see her Departed children again, and she has to go to St. Louis to find out more.

Committed agent that she is, Nora instantly calls up her employers at the Department of Sudden Departures and offers herself up as bait to suss out the scam that Linn-Baker must be — has to be — selling. It’s clear that Nora isn’t motivated entirely out of diligence, though it’s not clear from her actions what that extra motivation is. (A moment of reverence here for Carrie Coon, who, if the world were just, would live inside a giant, gilded Emmy.) Is she extra furious at Linn-Baker and his compatriots for taking advantage of the vulnerable? Is she holding out hope that he’s somehow solved the unsolvable? Even Nora doesn’t know, so she focuses every drop of her trademark ferocity on finding out.

What happens in that St. Louis hotel room — this show and hotels! — is as heartbreaking as the circumstances that enabled it are tragicomic. Linn-Baker’s there, alright, doing great work as a man left scrambling for meaning by the cruel prank the cosmos have played on him. He plays this alternate-universe version of himself completely straight as he makes his pitch to Nora: Physicists have isolated a certain kind of radiation found near Departure sites and made a machine to blast people with it, sending them … wherever the Departed went. For a certain portion of their net worth, of course.

Much of The Leftovers’ pathos comes from its constant collision of irreconcilable worldviews, each equally essential to maintaining the view-holder’s sanity. Nobody can just live and let live, because most people’s coping mechanisms pose an existential threat to everyone else’s. Linn-Baker needs to believe that someone’s found a way for him to rejoin his castmates, wherever they may be. And Nora needs to believe that this is a giant crock of shit, making sure everyone around her — Linn-Baker, the Jarden pilgrims — is forced to believe it, too. There’s no room in their respective cosmologies for the other person’s faith. The angst is compounded by Nora and Linn-Baker being peas in a horribly unlucky pod, the lone survivors of a concentrated cataclysm; Nora lost everyone at home, while Linn-Baker lost everyone at (his former) work. And adding insult to injury, their pain then got turned into tabloid headlines and Wikipedia footnotes. “Nora Cursed.” That one Perfect Strangers guy who got left behind.

The contrast is astonishingly effective, a perfect opportunity The Leftovers created for itself on accident and then looped back to unearth. There’s even a bit of meta self-criticism buried in the scene: what we and the show once laughed off as a punch line amounts to a (fictional version of a) real person’s struggle. Watching “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” I immediately thought of High Maintenance, another HBO series that turned a one-time object of derision into a protagonist in his own right. Max, one half of the duo saved in his weed dealer’s phone as “The Assholes,” turns out to be in a toxic, codependent relationship with his emotionally abusive best friend. The lesson of “Don’t Be Ridiculous” is the same: We write off the humanity of others at our own risk.

In its final season, The Leftovers is impressing upon us the breadth of its imagination and the ingenuity of its writing. We’re lucky to have this show while it’s here, and we’ll miss it dearly when it’s gone. What other show would think to do this? More importantly, what other show would be able to pull it off? From now on, if and when I think of Mark Linn-Baker, I doubt I’ll think of Perfect Strangers. I’ll think of this.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.