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There’s a chance that HBO’s newest drama, The Leftovers, might end up being the most meta show on television. But maybe not for the reasons we think.
The series, based on the 2011 book of the same name by Tom Perrotta, focuses on what happens three years after an unexplained event causes 2 percent of the world’s population to vanish. One moment they’re there, the next they’re gone.
The disappearances can’t be explained by religion — though many groups attribute it to divine will while others believe that it’s clearly the rapture. Scientists can’t explain it either, other than to say it’s a random event with no clear ties to any god.
You can imagine in what state this leaves the survivors. There is, of course, survivor’s guilt. There is suicide. There is depression, denial, alcoholism and random acts of bad behavior.
One of the great elements of Perrotta’s idea is that there is no answer. We, as a people, want clarity and definition. Most of us don’t like vagueness and uncertainty, any gray that mixes with the black and white that we use to reinforce all of our assumptions and beliefs. The notion of randomness is unsettling. That drives the drama in The Leftovers because it makes people unpredictable and their reactions unpredictable.
Set in Mapleton, New York, The Leftovers begins three years after what has been deemed “the sudden departure” as a way to avoid religious overtones and a permanence that might take hope away from those still waiting for their loved ones to return.
What Perrotta and co-writer/executive producer Damon Lindelof smartly get at with “the sudden departure” is all the character-shaping that derives from the unexplainable. With a series that is a mystery on one level but is really about humanity’s reaction to the unknown, you can delve into some hefty themes. Certainly there’s faith — and the lack of it. What is brought out of a person after an event like this? In what ways do survivors rethink how they’ve lived their lives to that point: Do they become more free-spirited or do they grow more insular and close to the loved ones that remain? What happens to ambition?
The Leftovers will at least make faith a central pillar of the series. The survivors wonder aloud about the selection process — God’s plan, if you will. Ideally, only the most holy, the sweetest and the most loving would have vanished. But that’s not what happened — lots of bad people disappeared too.
There’s a great moment in the series when, on the anniversary of the event, people in a bar are watching cable news, which is airing a remembrance of people who disappeared. Condoleezza Rice. Salman Rushdie. Shaq. J.Lo. Bonnie Raitt. Gary Busey. Anthony Bourdain. Pope Benedict, etc. And the bartender says, to no one in particular: “The Pope I get. The Pope. But Gary fucking Busey? How does he make the cut?”
Three years later, few can accept it was a random event.
Now, the meta part of The Leftovers comes from Lindelof, who was executive producer and writer on Lost (with Carlton Cuse, after creator J.J. Abrams left to make movies), the poster series for asking three times as many questions as it ultimately answered and, to some, for going out with a convoluted, disappointing ending — for which viewers blamed Lindelof.
Given that, and Lindelof’s own well-chronicled struggle of dealing with that “failure” and people’s inability to let it go, him shepherding another series with a number of unanswered questions and perhaps a “big picture” mystery will no doubt make The Leftovers one of the most over-analyzed, navel-gazed shows in history.
That is, if it catches on. Fans who haven’t read the book may worry that investing in a complicated show with no promise of an ultimate payoff is too risky. The Leftovers has, in a number of ways, differentiated itself from the book, so any expectations that the series will end the same way should be tempered — though the book’s conclusion was, for many readers, itself maddeningly vague.
This is an ideal situation for crippling meta-fixation from week to week. Given Lindelof’s history with Lost, plus the belief that Perrotta didn’t explain enough or give enough answers in the book, and a structure — witnessed through four episodes sent to critics by HBO — that lends itself to drawing out the story and deepening the mysteries created by “the sudden departure,” antsy over-examination is a given.
And yet, there’s something lovely about the journey being more important than actually completing an A-to-B trip, of solving a puzzle.
The pilot, directed by Peter Berg, is probably the most jarring hour-plus people will see in a while (and is significantly more random and mysterious than the three other episodes HBO sent). But it was also entertaining and riveting. The subsequent episodes also seemed confident in their tone and pacing — as if to say, “Yes, this is weird and complicated, but we haven’t even really begun and look how much fun it is already!”
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I felt no rush to find out all the answers. I wanted to understand the bleakness and confusion that follows 2 percent of the world’s population going “poof.”
The series centers on Mapleton police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who has a unique position in the post-departure era. Though he didn’t lose a child or an immediate family member like most, he’s lost a lot. His father, the chief of police before him, was committed to a mental hospital (but might not actually be crazy, despite talking with people who aren’t there). More damaging, his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has left Kevin and their two children, former college student Tom (Chris Zylka) and high-schooler Jill (Margaret Qualley) and joined a “cult” group called the Guilty Remnant, who dress all in white, smoke cigarettes nonstop and don’t speak out loud. What they do do is bug the Mapleton survivors with their omnipresent weirdness. The Guilty Remnant (slogans, “We Are Living Reminders” and “We Don’t Smoke for Our Enjoyment, We Smoke to Proclaim Our Faith”) probably need a seminar in effective recruitment and messaging, since most people hate them and want to beat them up. It’s not clear immediately in The Leftovers what kind of reminder the Guilty Remnant are shooting for, since most survivors are hyper-aware of what happened, even three years later.
With their mother gone, the Garvey kids are suffering. Tom has joined a different cult, which follows Holy Wayne, a man who believes he can hug the “burden” and emptiness out of people — ostensibly absolving them of their feelings when no one else can. Daughter Jill is getting more “experimental,” and brings Aimee (Emily Meade) to live in their house because Aimee can’t stay with her stepfather. But Aimee’s Lolita ways are reeling in Jill’s dad.
Beyond his family, Kevin has to deal with a lot of bizarre behavior in Mapleton. Perhaps at the top of that list — well, just under the Guilty Remnant — is Dean (Michael Gaston), a smokeless-tobacco chewing oddball who is shooting lots of stray dogs. Of course, he has his reasons: “They are definitely not our dogs — not anymore,” Dean says to Kevin, who would frown upon Dean’s behavior a lot more if he hadn’t started coming across dogs that have been missing for three years (since the departure) but now seem to be returning, in dangerous packs.
Highlighting the religious part of the story is Rev. Matt Jamison (Chris Eccleston, who, like most of this cast, is just marvelous in every frame). Reverend Jamison is not just a true believer, he thinks it’s important to point out all the flaws — deep, life-destroying flaws — of locals who were taken. The nondeserving taint the deserving, he believes. With residents already losing their faith and abandoning religion after the departure, Reverend Jamison doesn’t help his cause by denigrating the dead. As a character, however, he underscores the bigger themes of transformation that Perrotta and Lindelof are getting at. When we learn his backstory, Jamison seems less crazy, more kind, and thus his journey is more intriguing (because, yes, it has a lot of references to larger mysteries that are in play — pieces that may help solve the puzzle for viewers).
But getting the balance right in The Leftovers will be the key to its success. I felt less enamored with scattered hints that something bigger and possibly paranormal was in play, and more intrigued with normal human reactions to an epically complex event. If Lindelof and Perrotta can somehow strike a balance of the human, emotional fallout while also delving into an explanation of the oddities involved in “the sudden departure,” then The Leftovers could be one of the more riveting new series. And it would be nice for the series to be recognized for such an achievement, rather than being a show people watch to see if Lindelof can rectify Lost.
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