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The Leftovers: Pilot

“Let’s go teardrop-hunting.”

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 frustrating lively.

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 is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

16 comments:

  1. I am thinking of watching this as I heard the twins from Teen Wolf are in it, and when I find the time to actually sit down and watch it, I'm really hoping I enjoy it. I gave up on LOST about halfway through the first season so I'm hoping it's not the same with this.

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  2. Still puzzled as to why they would choose to name the show after the slowly decaying food in the back of a fridge. Huh.

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  3. Yeah, my list of things to do today included these three items right next to each other:

    1. Groceries
    2. Prep Food for Week
    3. Leftovers

    It was weird.

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  4. I watched three seasons of Lost, then got mad they killed a character I really liked. Later I learned it was the actors' own choice to leave, and that the powers that be had planned bigger things for him. Oh well.
    That said, I'm giving this at least a season. An Eccleston-centric episode is a must watch for me. Yeah, weird show title. Unless the Leftovers are going to be eaten by Hannibal. Sorry, I went there. With antlers.

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  5. I thought the pilot episode was absolutely stunning in almost every way possible. The writing by Lindelof and Perrotta, the directing by Berg, and the acting all around. I'm a die hard "Lost" fan and while there are many similarities between the two, there are also ways in which they couldn't be further apart. Whereas the former revealed in genres and good old fashioned fun, "The Leftovers" is almost completely devoid of any categorizing. The pilot anyhow felt alien to me in how little actually happened. Where "Lost" still valued character above the so called big answers, "The Leftovers" is so unequally balanced that even asking the questions feels arbitrary.

    I loved the way it gave us small glimpses of every character while building towards the parade, which worked at the end not just as a climax but as a boiling pot of all the emotions and people we've come to see. I'm really fascinated early on by Holy Wayne, though so far I'd have to say Kevin is the most relatable character on a human level (and the most well acted). "Lost" introduced their characters in a similar fashion; allowing them a certain amount of mystery while never dropping the every day man personality we can all relate to.

    I'm glad that Lindelof has already spoken out against any sort of 'big' resolution at the end of the series. The writers have already made it clear with the premier episode that their goals lie more predominantly in exploring human nature, often at it's worst. The ending scene in particular gave me chills. Kevin was already standing on the dark cliff between sanity and insanity, it looks like he may now be hanging off.

    I can't wait for episode 2! I'm just glad to have Lindelof back on our TVs.

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  6. The creators of Lost have had to correct this many times. The characters were not dead the whole time. Everything that happened on the island did happen. The shot of the plane at the end of the credits was done by ABC. It was not part of the actual show.

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  7. My mistake, it was put there by the creators but here's the explanation.
    "No, no, no. They were not dead the whole time,” Cuse said, explaining that footage of the plane wreckage at the end of the show was meant to act as a buffer.

    “We thought, let’s put those shots [of the plane wreckage] at the end of the show and it will be a little buffer and lull. And when people saw the footage of the plane with no survivors, it exacerbated the problem.

    “But the characters definitely survived the plane crash and really were on a very real island. At the very end of the series, though? Yep, they were all dead when they met up in heaven for the final ‘church’ scene.”

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  8. Anonymous, I know that.

    I was using "Dead the whole time" as shorthand for one of the many reasons people say they are unhappy with the Lost finale, but nonetheless don't seem to understand exactly what they're unhappy about.

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  9. My mistake. I misunderstood.

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  10. I fall into the "too dreary, won't watch" category.

    I watched all of Lost. I didn't watch it for the story, which grew ridiculous to me. I watched it for the characters and their interactions. Unfortunately, not one of the characters in this show made me want to continue with his or her story.

    I will be interested to hear how the story develops from those of you who will stick with it.

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  11. What Chris said. Plus, they kept killing dogs. I actually hated it.

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  12. I watched the first 20 minutes or so before succumbing the the fast forward to get to Eccleston's appearance. Like Chris & Billie, it was too dismal for me. I will probably watch the Eccleston centric episode. I just about always enjoy his acting.

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  13. In all honesty, the fact that this show was created by people from LOST was a deterrent. No disrespect to that other show, it just never clicked for me.

    I wasn't going to tune in (despite the insistence from my office BFF) but then I heard Christopher Eccleston was in it. And, well, my loyalty to the Ninth Doctor is strong because I did ended up watching the pilot.

    It was...moody to the point that I rolled my eyes a few times. I didn't appreciate the dog shootings either. I'm feeling rather neutral towards the show.

    For now, I'm going to give it two more eps (especially now that I've read that Christoper Eccleston's character will be more prominent in ep 3) before I decide whether to keep tuning in or not. Sometimes, pilot episodes aren't great but the show grows stronger in subsequent episodes.

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  14. I loved the pilot, but then again I'm a moody person dealing with loss who is also intrigued by the inexplicable so it was quite my type of story.

    BTW - Did anyone else catch the shoutout to Boone on the car radio? Wonder if that was an intentional Lost reference...

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  15. Also, doesn't it seem like the leftover people are slowly rotting like the food in the back of the refrigerator?

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  16. Just watched the first episode last night. Been meaning to get to this for awhile now. The presentation alone is enough for me to keep going. I love that Lindelof doesn't try to spoon feed exposition, just drops you into this situation these people are locked in; he's probably one of my favorite TV writers at this point.

    The first dog killing was shocking, but that ending was a whole different kind of surprise.

    I don't necessarily mind a show being dark or cynical (look at the shows I review), but I do mind a show that's dark and cynical and doesn't try to say anything. To your point, The Walking Dead just got repetitive and pretentious after awhile. I've heard the later seasons of The Leftovers are less bleak than the first. If Lost and Watchmen are any indication, I don't think Lindelof is a writer who normally deals in weightless drama.

    I'll see where this is going, now that my Westworld is gone again.

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