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Should Atheists Watch The Leftovers? Your TV Questions, Answered

Photo: HBO and Sundance

Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons will answer your questions about what to watch, when to watch it, whom to watch it with, and how to feel about the whole thing. To submit your own questions, you can email, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.

How do I convince my staunchly atheist boyfriend to watch The Leftovers? I’ve tried talking up its pedigree — it’s HBO, the initial Peter Berg association, the numerous positive reviews — and trying to explain it’s NOT Left Behind, but none of it seems to work. I feel like there are a lot of interesting themes and stories that go beyond the religious idea of the Rapture — it’s just interesting television. Please help! (For the record, I’m not terribly religious myself, but the idea of faith is interesting, and he watches things like Breaking Bad, Fargo, and Mad Men). —Shelley

Sorry, Shelley. I know this is not the answer you were looking for, but: Don’t make your boyfriend watch The Leftovers.

There are plenty of good reasons not to be interested in The Leftovers without even getting into the show’s religiosity. This is a series about which reasonable people can disagree: I find it tiresome and needlessly opaque, but some people I respect find it daring and captivating. And it’s not a matter of not “getting” it. I get it just fine; I just don’t care for it. On the flip side, I don’t think my loved ones have fallen for an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of thing — I think they really do enjoy the show’s vagaries. Taste! There’s no accounting for it.

But let’s talk about the show’s religiosity. TV shows can depict characters who are religious without the show itself being or seeming religious — I’ve seen the Simpsons go to church plenty of times, but I’m not sure I’d call The Simpsons a Christian show. Same goes for Friday Night Lights. Are the people on The Leftovers “religious”? Some of them are, namely Christopher Eccleston’s erratic minister character, though his calling does not seem to make him more thoughtful or compassionate than other people. The Guilty Remnant is usually called a cult when critics write about it, though it’s not clear to me that it’s a religious cult necessarily. Holy Wayne out in the desert does seem to be of religious significance to his followers, but the show has been pretty vague about his teachings. The town has a creche, though no one seems that into it (nor do they seem that bothered by it, which rankles). But I’m not convinced that The Leftovers takes place in a more religious world than the one I currently live in. Nor am I convinced that it’s a more violent world. People are religious fanatics in real society; people kill middle-aged women in real society, too. Some people go to church. Some people kill dogs. Some people probably do both. I’m not sure exactly what The Leftovers is about, but it so far does not seem to be about religion. (In the future, though, if someone seeks religious exemption from watching a show, go ahead and grant that. This isn’t Hobby Lobby. It’s a Justin Theroux–shaped blip in HBO programming.)

Are Hulu original shows like The Awesomes or Deadbeat worth it? I’m open to watching a Hulu show, but they don’t seem good.— @jondying

Yeah, most of them are not good. I can’t get into The Awesomes, and Deadbeat left me cold. But there are two Hulu shows that are fantastic: One is Behind the Mask, a documentary series about four guys who are mascots; and the other is The Wrong Mans, a Hulu co-production with BBC. Mask is often funny and surprisingly moving, and The Wrong Mans is just a legitimately excellent show. It’s about a sort of sad-sack British guy who finds himself accidentally embroiled in a dangerous organized crime ring — think if Tim from the original Office suddenly had to be Jack Bauer. Or if Chuck were British and sad. The show is often hilarious, and there are some terrific action sequences, plus it’s got a real dark side.

How many episodes do you have to watch for your viewing session to qualify as a “binge”? How many is too many in one sitting, in one day, in one weekend? Do you have a preferred pace for watching shows? And do you think our ability to mainline an entire season or series can negatively affect our enjoyment of said season or series? —Lauren

Ooooh, so many good questions in here! For starters, though, I prefer the term “marathon” to “binge” — binge implies that something is to excess, it’s too much, that someone would have to be at least a little out of control to watch that much. Marathon, if anything, has a positive connotation. Hurray for us and our television endurance!

So what qualifies as a marathon? For the layperson, I’d say anything over six hours. On a regular night, one can easily watch shows from 8 p.m. to midnight — prime time plus Daily Show and Colbert — and maybe something DVRed from earlier. Much more than that and you can feel it in your bones and salivary glands. Six hours of the same show is a lot for most people. Which isn’t to say it’s too much, necessarily, but it’s a real chunk of your day.

There’s no set amount of time that’s too much; that’ll really vary by show. I made the mistake of marathoning Top of the Lake, and I regret it. Not because I missed some stuff, but because afterwards I was in this woozy state of believing the whole world was a disgusting rape goblin and everyone was a monster. (That’s basically accurate, but it’s no way to go through a day.) Same goes for the brilliant, enchanting Rectify: The show is utterly engrossing, but watching too many in a row puts you in a dreamy humid field where maybe you’re a murderer? Three Rectifys at a time, max. Once, when I was going through A Dark Time, I was watching like eight or nine Grey’s Anatomy episodes a day for more than a week, which is sort of like a cleanse, except instead of some bullshit juice or whatever, you just cry yourself empty. I felt healed. When I studied abroad in college, I begged my dad to tape — TAPE! — The West Wing for me while I was gone, which he did; when I got home, my preordered Sports Night DVDs had also arrived. So that was 12 or so episodes of West Wing and 45 episodes of Sports Night, which adds up to about 25ish hours of watching that I watched pretty much straight through. The only side effect is that I started saying “you bet.” (I still say this a lot.)

Very few shows are as atmosphere-driven as Top of the Lake and Rectify, though, so in general I don’t think marathon viewing has particular ill effects. And depending on the show, it can be beneficial. Take the American version of House of Cards. If that aired on a week-to-week basis, the plot mechanics would never stand up to the kind of scrutiny we use to examine other prestige dramas. Watched all at once, though, or maybe over the course of two or three days, and HoC seems perfectly fine. The one danger that occasionally arises is the marathon-catch-up that segues into weekly viewing of the next season; sometimes it’s hard to change gears, but that’s just one of those life lessons guidance counselors are always telling you about. “Relax a little, Margaret. Not everything has to be on your schedule.” I’m trying.

A friend just started Battlestar Galactica for the first time and I am mad with jealousy because it is such a great show to watch new. So please, what would you recommend as a comparable series to fill this void and keep me from blurting out green-tinged spoilers at her? —Jessica, via Facebook

Shows that are particularly good the first time through tend to have vivid, interesting supporting characters right from the get-go; you can jump right in and get it, right away. I love Mad Men, for example, but I tend to like episodes more and more as I rewatch them, particularly from season one. For Veronica Mars, rewatching episodes doesn’t diminish my love, but it doesn’t change it in quite the same way. Same goes for Friday Night Lights — I love it, deeply, completely, and forever, but I’m not sure that rewatching it has substantively altered that feeling. (The only thing that changed was I had less of a problem with the Tyra-Landry season two plot upon third and fourth rewatchings. It didn’t bother me quite so much.) I’m a BSG fanatic, but that falls into the “better upon rewatch” camp for me; that said, you asked for shows to watch new, and thus I shall recommend such programs: Veronica Mars. The first season of Lost. Buffy. Friday Night Lights. The first season of Dexter is still unimpeachable. Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and Wonderfalls, for the Bryan Fuller whimsy trifecta. Northern Exposure. NYPD Blue. Damages. Homeland. The Shield. The Shield, The Shield, The Shield. Oh my God, The Shield.

I only like Downton Abbey. —Amanda

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that this question came from my boss. (And she’s exaggerating. A little.) Amanda, you should watch Land Girls. It’s about British people; it’s set during World War II; and there are only five episodes per season.

Should Atheists Watch The Leftovers?