Pilot Review: THE LEFTOVERS

They share an impetus, but The Leftovers isn’t Left Behind. It’s DEFINITELY not Left Behind.

They’re heroes because no one’s gonna come to a parade on ‘We Don’t Know What the F— Happened’ Day. It’s a day of remembrance.

–Mayor Lucy Warburton

If you heard about HBO’s new series, The Leftovers, its mysterious rapture-like disappearance plot device, and heard that it was co-created by Damon Lindelof of LOST fame, you might be concerned about another show that only semi-answers the plot questions it raises. Well, you don’t have to worry about that. I feel pretty confident on this one: the answer for why the show’s sudden, seemingly random disappearance happened is never coming. This isn’t that kind of show.

The pilot opens with a woman at a Laundromat, going through the regular labors of her day. Her wailing infant son only adds to her stress, but as she puts him in his car seat his crying suddenly stops. Confused, she turns to investigate, but can’t find him in the car seat. Or in the car at all. Or anywhere in the surrounding parking lot. He’s simply vanished, as has the father of another young boy in the parking lot. Driverless cars collide in the background. In a flash, 2% of the world’s population – 140 million people – have vanished without a trace.

Cue intertitle card: THREE YEARS LATER.

I don’t ever expect an answer for why The Sudden Disappearance happened because the showrunners obviously don’t care. The ‘Why’ isn’t important. They care about the ‘What Now.’ Approaching the three year anniversary of the disappearances, a scientific panel briefs congress about their discoveries: They don’t know. Science has nothing to offer in explanation, and many people have turned to religion for answers. When a high school PA leads the students in the pledge of allegiance none of students rise or take part, but at least half take an opportunity to pray. That’s the world our protagonists live in. The government couldn’t keep its citizens safe. Science has no answers. Maybe the spirituality of religion has answers to offer, but large portions of the population aren’t buying into that, either. I guess it’s time for existentialism to enter our conversations about primetime television. Our characters are driven by the need to understand how and why this happened, but none seem to agree on an answer. The disappearances are seemingly random. Vanished celebrities include the Pope and Salman Rushdie, but Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Busey, too. Where’s the logic in that list? Our characters are left to wonder and struggle alone, looking for answers that may never come.

The show’s focus seems to be on the Garvey family. Father Kevin (Justin Theroux) is the town’s police chief, a straight arrow trying to maintain the peace in an altered world while fighting his own demons (Sheriff Rick Grimes, anybody?). As Heroes Day (as the three-year anniversary will be called) approaches, he’s attempting to persuade the mayor to cancel the “holiday’s” planned parade. He knows that the presence of the entire town gathered together will surely draw the Guilty Remnant (GR) to the parade.

The GR is a local cult founded after the disappearance. The GR members dress in white, chain smoke, and never speak, viewing themselves as “living reminders” of the vanished. The cult is growing quickly, from only a handful of members to over fifty, and while they don’t seem particularly dangerous, they do love to provoke a scene. Their members often stalk potential recruits, lingering outside their homes and offices while smoking and staring. And they seem to love a crowd. Kevin knows that their presence at the parade would likely cause violence, and he has other reasons for wanting to avoid the GR: His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman) is a member, having seemingly walked out of the house one day to join, leaving Justin and their two children, Tom and Jill, behind.

Jill (Margaret Qualley) is the youngest child, still in high school and struggling to deal with her mother’s abandonment. She turns violent during field hockey practice, and breaks another girl’s nose. An emotionally lost former straight-A student, she’s developed a strong attitude and spends her time with her hyper-sexual, amoral best friend, Aimee. Swinging the pendulum the other way, Tom (Chris Zylka) is a college dropout who now ferries high paying customers to a religious advisor at an armed compound in the desert. If Jill’s bent is towards nihilism, Tom’s is towards spirituality. Neither of the two children do anything particularly interesting during the pilot, and the party scene where Jill plays a game of nihilistic spin the bottle that includes burning and choking as well as a slew of sexual activities is a low point for the show’s writing.

The Guilty Remnant do, indeed, show up at the parade, just as Kevin expected, and the scene does dissolve into violence after the GR members brandish signs telling the gathered mourners to “Stop Wasting Your Breath.” Kevin and his small town police force are left trying to break up the violence, forming a human barrier between the two groups. Kevin even pulls Laurie from the melee amid the violence.

There are other plotlines too, including Meg (Liv Tyler), an engaged woman seemingly lost in the world before becoming a target for the GR, and Dean (Michael Gaston), a man who violently kills stray dogs who have “turned” after the disappearance.  I want to see more of Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a seemingly reality-detached reverend who had little more than a cameo appearance in the premiere. Hopefully the storylines get fleshed out in the coming weeks.

Theroux is really better than I expected him to be, and I think he does an excellent job in the pilot. It took me a while to fully comprehend that this is the same man who played a goofy hippie commune leader in the forgettable comedy Wanderlust. He does a good job here. The question now is if he can step up when the script calls for more than just simmering anger and befuddlement. You can sense an approaching violence coming between the town and the GR, and I would expect members of the GR to turn up dead in the coming weeks as the town lashes out in anger. The disaster is over. Now it’s time to pick up the pieces. Even the President said in the pilot that it’s time to move on. The question of why this all happened is going to quickly disappear, and we’ll soon be working with the reality of how our survivors deal with this changed world.

If you’re familiar with co-creators Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s work, The Leftovers does make a lot of sense. The rapture mystery and science vs. faith theme are pure Lindelof and easy callbacks to LOST. Throw in the appearance of a mystical, magic deer (the mystical wisdom of animals standing in the road seems to be a TV theme of 2014) and you can feel Lindelof’s impact on the series. Perrotta’s best known work is probably the adaptation of his novel, Little Children, into the film of the same name. Darkly flawed characters existing and grappling with big questions in the suburbs is a hallmark of that work, too. My feeling after seeing that film was that it was good, but extremely cold – a criticism that I can imagine being leveled at The Leftovers as well. That mystical deer? It gets run down and torn apart by wild dogs in the pilot’s closing minutes. Like Little Children, an Iñárritu film, or the works of Ingmar Bergman (whose work seems an especially apt parallel here considering the frequent theme of a silent god), you may find that The Leftovers is excellent television, but that doesn’t mean that it’s fun to watch. The Leftovers may soon come to signify the few people with enough appreciation of its fine crafting to continue watching week after week.

Grade: Promising, but coldly existential.

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