Why The Leftovers’ Pop-Culture References Are So Good

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L-R: Carrie Coon as Nora Durst, Mark Linn-Baker as himself.

The opening titles for Sunday’s episode of The Leftovers made a couple of musical references that initially seemed incredibly random, but turned out to be important, even poignant, in the hour that followed.

First, the titles swapped out their usual folksy anthem, “Let the Mystery Be,” for “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” the theme from the 1980s-and-early-‘90s sitcom Perfect Strangers. Then the writing credit that popped up was listed as “Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious,” a pair of names clearly spit out by the Wu-Tang Name Generator, a long-standing online delivery engine that takes regular monikers and transforms them into ones worthy of one of the greatest hip-hop acts of all time, the Wu-Tang Clan.

On first viewing of the episode, both that song and that credit are funny, mainly because they’re so odd and unexpected. Even though Perfect Strangers has been a running bit on the show since season one, it’s still jarring and wonderfully absurd to hear that tune — a creamy serving of sonic Velveeta spiced with excellent harmonica riffs and uplifting vocals about standing tall on the wings of your dreams — against the usual visuals of people standing next to the blank spaces the departed left behind. As for the Wu names, maybe everyone in the writers room got high one day while listening to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and decided to go full Childish Gambino on the credit listing? Actually, I’m certain that’s not what happened. But the titles are so weird that it feels entirely possible.

The events in this episode — which, in keeping with the Perfect Strangers motif, is titled “Don’t Be Ridiculous” — eventually make it clear that the allusions to Balki and Old Dirty Bastard are more than just a couple of gags tossed in for giggles. Like practically every reference on The Leftovers, biblical or otherwise, these two, as well as a more subtle nod to another ABC sitcom, which I’ll get into later, are more meaningful than they first appear. Ultimately, they underline the central question of this second hour of season three, and of The Leftovers overall: Do the things that happen to human beings, including the Sudden Departure, speak to mystical, deeper purposes or are they just, like that theme song and that writing credit initially seem, random jokes?

When Perfect Strangers is first mentioned in season one — Kevin’s father is watching a rerun and notes that all four principal cast members “poofed” on October 14 — it seems like a kicker to the joke about all the haphazardly chosen celebrities who departed. That’s mainly because, at the time, it was. As showrunner Damon Lindelof explains in an episode of the Vulture TV Podcast that goes live Tuesday, the notion of a Perfect Strangers cast departure ended up in the show because one of the writers, Jacqueline Hoyt, suggested it. In the second season, the writers revisited the idea again, implying via newscast footage that Mark-Linn Baker is the one person from Perfect Strangers who didn’t actually depart and has been hiding in Mexico ever since.

Those sly winks finally pay off in this episode in ways that are surprisingly emotional. Nora travels to St. Louis to meet with Baker, who tells her a group of scientists have created a device that, using a particular type of radiation, can transport people to the place where the departed were sent. Nora has been identified as someone who may potentially want to embark on this journey so that she can reunite with her kids, while Baker, having previously been recruited by similar means, has already made up his mind to “go through,” a fact that Nora says is evidence he is suicidal.

“Four series regulars,” Baker replies. “Three go. One stays: Me. You know what the odds of that are?”

As he tells her this, an image flashes of Nora’s old kitchen, complete with the chairs that suddenly became empty when her husband and children vanished. Of course Nora knows. She was the only series regular on her version of an ABC sitcom who got left behind. Suddenly, the idea that Baker was overlooked isn’t funny anymore; it’s tragic in the same way that Nora’s situation is. Baker, who, as he says in the episode, really does have a degree in drama from Yale as well as many distinguished acting credits aside from Perfect Strangers, is terrific in this scene, particularly when he delivers the line that ends his conversation with Nora.

“It was purposeless. It wasn’t my fault,” he says. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. So no, Nora, I don’t want to kill myself. I want to take some fucking control.” That resonates with Nora, who continues to demonstrate how little patience she has with faith or religion. The idea of taking control, though? That she gets.

That one scene isn’t the only way that Perfect Strangers is used, improbably and beautifully in this episode, to speak to Nora’s pain. A spare, piano version of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” makes a reappearance on the soundtrack as Nora drives from St. Louis to Kentucky to spy on Lily, the daughter she adopted and, in the time that passed between seasons two and three, gave back to her biological mother, Christine. Appropriately, the instrumental cover of the song plays as we see Nora in profile behind the wheel, an image that mirrors the one of Mark-Linn Baker’s Larry in the opening titles of Perfect Strangers as he heads to Chicago to start his new life.

That song ordinarily sounds super-cheery and, yes, I’ll say it, ri-deek-ulous. Here, it sounds melancholy, less about standing on the wings of dreams and more about knowing that usually, they tend to get dashed no matter what you do. The lyrics are never heard, but the idea of them — “It’s my life, and my dream, and nothing’s gonna stop me now” — is heartbreaking in light of Nora’s borderline stalking of Lily and the possibility that soon, she may radiate herself into some mysterious realm where Erin and Jeremy may (or may not) be waiting for her.

The Wu-Tang Clan works its way into another fantastic two-person scene in which Nora reveals to Erika (Regina King) that she got a tattoo of the Wu-Tang symbol to cover up her tattoo of her children’s names.

Nora clearly has no idea who the Wu-Tang Clan is; at first, she refers to the group as the “Wu-Tang Band.” She chooses that W that looks like the bat signal because she thinks it resembles a phoenix, imagery that calls to mind that damn theme song again: “Standing tall / On the wings of my dream / Rise and fall / On the wings of my dreams.” (At this time, I’d just like to say that never, in the wildest of my dreams, did I imagine I’d one day write an essay suggesting that there are connections between the Wu-Tang Clan and Perfect Strangers.)

That tattoo also happens to be a symbol for a group that defined itself as a clan, a family, yet often splintered off into individual solo projects, which speaks to the unstable family units that have been a constant in Nora’s life. She lost her parents in a fire, she lost her kids and husband in the departure, she lost Lily. Even if she doesn’t know why, it makes so much sense that Nora would choose this as her inked-on badge. I’d also add that Nora having a Wu-symbol tattoo makes sense because Nora Durst, clearly, ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit.

Even the interlude in which Nora and Erika go for a spin on Erika’s trampoline uses the Wu-Tang Clan to speak to the dueling impulses inside Nora. The two women vault upward, then come down — again, the theme of rising and falling comes into play — to the beat of “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off),” a song whose title speaks to both Nora’s defense mechanisms and her desire to take some kind of leap.

Duality and doubles are a major element in this season of The Leftovers, and that starts to reveal itself in this episode in a number of ways. Going back to Perfect Strangers: that was a show about the close relationship that evolves between a pair of cousins who, initially, don’t know each other at all. Throughout this episode, we see relationships that move in the opposite direction: They are supposed to be close but, in certain ways, both parties remain strangers. The man who fell from the pillar and his wife are bound to each other, yet lived physically apart for years until he died. That is similar to the relationship between Matt and Mary, which has now severed entirely. Nora’s “other” is Kevin, but the fact that she’s considering getting zapped with radiation suggests their union may not stay intact for long, either.

And then there are the dual Kevins. In the final sequence, a woman named Grace is convinced, wrongly, that a police officer named Kevin can be drowned and resurrected. (Huh, wonder where she got that idea?) Clearly, he’s doubling for the Kevin back in Texas, and, coincidentally, is played by an actor named Damien Garvey.

As for Grace, she is not exactly the first Grace we meet either, which brings me back to that second ABC sitcom I mentioned. The wife of the man on the pillar, who reinforces the idea that her late husband departed even though she knows he merely had a heart attack, is played by Brett Butler, the comedian and star of the ABC sitcom Grace Under Fire. That half-hour multi-camera comedy debuted in 1993, the same year that Perfect Strangers ended its run.

When Matt says to Nora, “Can’t you give a man a little grace?” he’s suggesting that Nora should leave the pillar man’s memory, as well as his wife, alone. But Matt’s comment is also a sly nod on the writers’ part to the character that Butler, like Baker, is best known for bringing to life. Honestly, the title of that sitcom — Grace Under Fire — could very easily work as the title of The Leftovers. That’s what this whole series is about: People seeking grace and mercy under duress, and casting doubt on the possibility that it’s ever possible to find it.

That’s a lot of meaning and interconnectivity to pack into pop-culture references that initially seem arbitrary. Perhaps this episode is The Leftovers’ way of telling us that things that may seem purposeless may actually be deliberate, or that when you’re tempted to think the world is just being ridiculous, maybe, there’s more to it after all.

Why The Leftovers’ Pop-Culture References Are So Good