Damon Lindelof’s new show The Leftovers portrays the small town of Mapleton three years after 2% of the world’s population (and 100% of our collective serotonin) disappeared in a Rapturesque event. Dreary and edgy, the show echoes many of Lost’s themes without seeming to repeat its mistakes.
I’ve been excited about this show since I heard Lindelof was developing a TV show (in June of 2012) and since we got confirmation that the show would be based on Tom Perotta’s novel of the same name (in February of 2013). In other words, I’ve been waiting more than two years to see how this all turns out. As the premiere date edged closer—and then was pushed back two weeks—I got more apprehensive, especially as early reviews seemed to fall into three camps:
• Too dreary, won’t watch.
• So dreary! Love dreary! Will watch!
• So are they going to be dead the whole time, too?
Let’s get that last point out of the way first: having completed my second total Lost rewatch, I’m confident in my assertion that Lost answered most of its “mysteries.” More importantly, watching the show without the interference of online paratextual theorizing clarifies that the mysteries, although fun, were never the “point” of the show itself. Debate if you want in the comments; that should be
Regardless, The Leftovers seems designed to avoid any fan theorizing. Setting the initial action three years after 2% of the population has mysteriously vanished allows nearly every character to explain that no, we don’t know what happened. And no, we likely won’t ever know. The question this show asks isn’t “What happened?” It’s “What’s next?”
And that’s where the dreary comes in. 2% isn’t much of the world’s population, so it is not the quantity of the “departed” but the incomprehensibility of their departure that sent the world spinning slightly off its axis. In one of the show’s most interesting scenes, no one in a high-school classroom (including the teacher) stands for the Pledge of Allegiance, but many of the students kneel for a moment of prayer. Mass death and disappearance traditionally do lead to drastic social change and the disruption of traditional institutions. But, while social change makes sense with the 20/20 hindsight of history, it just feels like instability and confusion to those who live through it.
There is no pattern to who disappeared: Salman Rushdie, Pope Benedict XVI, Gary Busey, Bonnie Raitt, babies, and brother-in-law “dipshits.” Religion might provide consolation, but it doesn’t provide many answers. Lost was a show about faith vs. reason; The Leftovers is a show about what happens when neither of those systems is enough. That leaves the eponymous Leftovers in Mapleton to ask why--why the disappearances, why not them, why live if life is inexplicable? Those questions being unanswerable, everyone is pushed to the cusp of dramatic action.
Some, like Amy Brenneman’s Laurie Garvey, join a cult of silent chain-smokers who stalk around town in all-white outfits. Others, like Laurie’s teenage daughter Jill, attend parties where high-schooler burn themselves with silverware and engage in erotic asphyxiation. So much for wine coolers and staying out past curfew.
In addition to Laurie and Jill, there’s son Tom, who seems to be involved in a different kind of cult out of town, and dad Kevin, the Mapleton police chief. Played by Justin Theroux, Kevin is a man on the edge: barely in control of his town and not in any control of his home life, which has slowly fractured since the day of the disappearances. In Lost parlance, he’s Jack Shepherd, with less hero complex and more tattoos.
Although the Garvey family is the pivot of this first episode, director Peter Berg, showrunner Lindelof, and executive producer Perotta effectively introduce other characters, including Nora Durst, who lost her husband and two children, and Liv Tyler’s Meg, who is drifting for reasons that are left undeveloped as yet.
Indeed, “undeveloped as yet” could be the entirety of this review, since this pilot establishes what has happened and who it is happening to, but doesn’t give us much sense of where it’s all going. Quiet shots of people looking moody set to a haunting piano score alternate with shaky handheld sequences—thanks, Peter Berg!—that explore the violence of people who think they have nothing to live for.
This episode is about 70 minutes long, and I spent 65 of those minutes thinking that I was going to fall into the “too dreary, won’t watch” camp. I gave up on The Walking Dead a while ago, in part because I just had no idea what I was supposed to be rooting for. It was an endless apocalyptic slog. I gave up on Under the Dome, which has a similar Mysterious Inciting Event© and small-town setting, because it seemed to have no sense of narrative structure.
The Leftovers may yet fall into either one of those traps, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Obviously, The Leftovers is simply done better than Under the Dome—this is HBO—and the final five minutes shook off some of the dreariness in a surprising way. I’ll leave you to discover that scene for yourself, but it left me suddenly curious about just how mad things might get, and how much further off its axis the world might tilt.
That curiosity is what, at this point, is keeping me interested in the show. Early reviews indicate that Episode Three, which focuses on Christopher Eccleston’s priest (who gets very little to do in the pilot), is excellent even as a standalone piece. And I have a weird faith in Lindelof himself: Lost is the show that pioneered the idea of having a game-plan and setting an end-date. I assume the HBO suits demanded that he answer the “What’s next?” question, even if his characters can’t.
Three out of four antlered animals, because apparently that's all the rage these days.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)