"Is that Another Naked Guy?" And Other Quotes by My Dad

In the second season of HBO’s "The Leftovers", Matt Jamison, an Episcopal priest, is walking through a camp stationed outside Miracle, Texas. On his walk, he spots a naked man in the stocks, on the roof of a cabin. “You want to free him?” one of the nearby women sneers. “Why, of course!” Jamison responds. “Then replace him!” she yells back at him. Though at first Jamison backs away, trying to put the whole scenario out of his mind, he returns later. He strips down and climbs on top of the cabin to release the man in the stocks. He is Christ, clothes gambled away by the Romans, naked and beautiful. He takes this man’s place. He loves.

 Photo from HBO

Photo from HBO

I knew this show was for me. I watched it through, and when I was done I watched it again. I asked my parents to join me. This time, I watched the show play out on their faces. Halfway through the second season, my father, frustrated, asked a profound question: "Why are there so many penises?" Sometimes I wonder if he knows how deep he is. Needless to say, his observation sent me searching for the answer. Why are there so many penises visible in "The Leftovers"?

"The Leftovers" is preoccupied with exploring the taboo and uncomfortable areas of life. When two percent of the world population vanishes into thin air, the characters believe they have just witnessed the Biblical rapture. But Christopher Eccleston’s character, Matt Jamison, as a minister and man of faith, desperately seeks out the lost to assure them that God has not left them behind, that He still loves them. They are not God’s leftovers. Nora Durst, played by Carrie Coon (Fargo), is the faithless and bitter sister of Jamison. Having lost her whole family, an incredibly unlikely thing in the world of "The Leftovers", she seeks ways to remember them always, and perhaps never to move on.

It wasn't until re-watching the finale with my parents that I felt I knew why this show was peppered with penises. Sitting there, with mom and dad, as Carrie Coon walked completely nude towards the camera in a slow, endless scene, I no longer felt the slightest bit uncomfortable. There was no ounce of sexual fantasy, my mom didn't even huff or cross her arms. We were witnessing something beautiful, and we all knew it. We just didn’t know why.

This is not the nudity of Game of Thrones or Californication. We are witnessing something else, something new. It’s hard to divorce nudity from pornography. Once we said we couldn’t define porn, but we knew it when we saw it. I don’t know if that’s true anymore. Nudity seems to have become far more common on-screen - particularly on HBO - and has been exploited for ratings and played for nothing more than arousal. But not all shows or films use nudity in this way.

"There was no ounce of sexual fantasy, my mom didn't even huff or cross her arms. We were witnessing something beautiful, and we all knew it. We just didn’t know why."

Westworld, another HBO show, incorporates nudity regularly to comment on our objectification of people. The many characters, disrobed on camera, are actually robots. They are literally objects to be had. And when watching A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s early exploration of nudity as a medium, it is hard to not make the connection between Alex, eyes clamped open before a screen of horrors, to the viewer’s own experience of the film. But even in their breaking the mold, these works still play on nudity as sexuality. "The Leftovers" doesn’t just deconstruct our pre-programed connection between sex and nakedness, it goes one step further.

Personally, I think the penises are to thank. But maybe that’s just me. It seems that the writers use male nudity, something that has far less baggage and is far less common than female nudity nowadays, to deprogram audiences. I am forced to stop thinking in terms of arousal or voyeurism. I am embarrassed. I am implicated. All I want to do is hide their shame, to make it stop. Characters stand naked in a kind of defenselessness. Jamison on his roof, deliberately putting himself in that position, is locked in the stocks with no protection from the beating sun. It would feel wrong to see his action as anything but beautiful.

 Photo from The New York Observer

Photo from The New York Observer

This is hard though. I squirm in my seat for the first two seasons, trying not to picture what I would do in their… skin. But it is this vulnerability I sorely need. I am not just watching a person’s body, I am witnessing an expression of their soul. It is through their vulnerability that I come to terms with my own. This is typical of theater, a form that places itself as close to the viewers as possible, often terrifyingly so.

I cry when I go to see plays. I’m impressed when a film or TV show can make me tear up. For "The Leftovers", with the medium of television in the way, and Carrie Coon standing naked, miles away from where I am watching her, it is hard to feel her weakness. It is hard to feel her presence. It is hard for the writers to find ways to bridge that gap. All I can say about this show is that, through tearful eyes, I do feel her presence, and it lays my soul bare.