There is a lot to like about The Leftovers, HBO's new show set after a Rapture-like event. It's an intriguing exploration of a world experiencing a collective existential crisis. But if you want mysteries unveiled and character histories revealed, you've come to the wrong show.
On October 14th, two percent of the world's population disappears. There's no musical sting, no bodies lifted toward the heavens, no great "whooshing"—just people there one moment and gone the next.
Three years later, there are still no clear explanations—scientific or spiritual—for the sudden departure. People talk about where they were when the departure happened. They whisper about people who lost their entire families that day. They hold memorial parades and erect statues that are in questionable taste. For American viewers, it's clearly meant to evoke the September 11th attacks, but on a global scale with much more talk of the Rapture.
It's not clear that it actually was the Rapture, however. Christopher Eccleston's ex-reverend tells us that one of the local townsfolk who disappeared beat her children, and while Pope Benedict XVI vanished, so did Gary Busey.
Our time three years after the mass vanishing opens on police chief Kevin Garvey, who approaches a stray dog on his morning job, only to see it shot by one of the locals. The could have set the tone for the pilot, revealing a world where ordinary events are transformed into random moments of violence. But the pilot is actually much more earnest than that—too earnest, perhaps—giving everyone their moment to express how the vanishing has impacted them.
Because Damon Lindelof, who co-created The Leftovers with the original book's author, Tom Perrotta, was one of the creators of Lost, it's tempting to think that The Leftovers will be focused on characters trying to learn about the nature of the vanishing. But judging from the pilot, that's not the direction the show seems to be taking. Sure, talking heads wrestle over the nature of the mysterious event on the television, but we're sitting in a microcosm, in one town that's experiencing the fallout from this huge, global event. The world of The Leftovers is familiar, but slightly out of synch with our own. No one stands for the pledge of allegiance any more, but now there's prayer time in the public school and a whole lot of kids kneel. The teenage hedonism is stepped up with a higher stakes version of spin-the-bottle, one that could end with you hugging someone or burning them with a heated fork. (Or choking them while they masturbate; hopefully that's not a sign of things to come.) The people who vanished are canonized, called "heroes" because the folks left behind have no idea how else to describe them.
And within the town of Mapleton, Kevin Garvey's family is a microcosm within a microcosm. Kevin's father, the former police chief, went nuts. His son Tom dropped out of school to work for a guru who is most definitely sleeping with all those pretty girls living on his compound. His wife Laurie has joined the Guilty Remnants, a local cult whose members wear white, refuse to speak, and chain-smoke like there's no tomorrow (presumably, because they believe there aren't many tomorrows left). And Kevin's daughter Jill? Well, she's just plain angry, much like her old man.
The Leftovers is set during a global existential crisis, when the world isn't just in mourning but also panicked over the very nature of existence. And while the pilot makes an earnest attempt to show the effects of this new world, it can be very hit and miss. On the one hand, there is a great, authentic scene where Lucy Warburton, Mapleton's mayor, plans the town's first "Heroes Day," commemorating the third anniversary of the event because, "Everybody's ready to feel better." "You're wrong," Kevin tells her. "Nobody's ready to feel better." On the other, we have Tom's guru, the allegedly charismatic Wayne, whose mania combined with his money-grubbing, girl-collecting ways feel far too much like the cult leaders we've seen time and again. (The compound, on the other hand, with its elements of fear and secrecy, has all the necessary menace.)
The show is at its best when it veers away from the expected. By far the most intriguing group of post-disappearance people are the Guilty Remnant, who are unnerving in every way. These folks recruit by "watching," identifying targets and then following them around, standing outside of homes, workplaces, and restaurants, silently smoking and staring. For all their silence and abnegation, they're compelling to watch, and when its revealed that their tactics are successful, it's utterly chilling. It's the best evidence the show gives us that the world has surely gone mad.
Well, okay, there is the business of the dogs who have gone feral. Kevin goes from a straight-laced cop who would never shoot a dog to someone who sees the need to start firing rounds at a pack of them. No one is escaping this new world unaltered.
The Leftovers can be both grimly funny and beautifully melancholic, but it also leaves the viewer with a weird sensation of floating through the episode, of not being sure quite what is real. It's a show woven through with flashbacks and premonitions and moments of sheer, unexplainable weirdness, and it's not always clear what we're supposed to get out of those moments. Plus, it makes very few revelations even about our core characters, and invites the viewer to work for those few crumbs of information. If you're content to let the show carry you where it will at its own pace, there is a lot of promising territory to explore. But if you're looking for a show that is going to travel a clear roadmap and lay bare all its mysteries, The Leftovers may proved ultimately frustrating.