Almost all genre shows today stand to some extent in the shadow of LOST. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse took what might have been a simple story of plane crash survivors and turned it into one of the most watched, most talked about television series of all time. With its unique style of jigsaw-flashback storytelling, LOST made sci-fi, mystery, and continuity-heavy shows a viable commodity in primetime. Since then, networks and showrunners of all stripes have riffed, innovated, or wholesale stolen from the show’s style, with varying but never profound degrees of success. Now, Lindelof himself is attempting another shot at primetime drama weirdness with The Leftovers on HBO.
Adapted from the novel by Tom Perotta, The Leftovers follows the residents of Mapleton, New York three years after the Sudden Departure, an event in which 2% of the world’s population vanished, apparently at random. It wasn’t quite an apocalyptic event, but everyone lost something, even those whose family or friends didn’t disappear. In the time since, those who remain have veered into emotional extremes, becoming more religious, more nihilistic, or just plain losing their grip. Chief among the latter is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the head of the local police and father to high schooler Jill (Margaret Qualley) and estranged son Tom (Chris Zylka). Garvey’s family is falling apart, and it’s all he can do to keep his short fuse under control at work. It’s especially difficult given the emergence of a mysterious cult, the Guilty Remnant, silent robe-wearing types who, so far, spend their time smoking and staring silently at townsfolk.
The cast is extremely solid, and make the most out of their various roles. Theroux’s serious turn comes off well, and he manages to walk the line between angry instability and believable competence. Amy Brenneman plays a member of the Guilty Remnant and has been a scene-stealer in every episode so far, despite the fact that she hasn’t spoken a single line. Zylka hasn’t been given a ton to do yet, but the few snaps of fear or bravery from him feel natural. Qualley nails the dysfunction of someone who’s hurting but doesn’t know how to deal with it, and Emily Meade is an excellent foil as Jill’s best friend Aimee.
How you feel about The Leftovers depends a lot on how you feel about Damon Lindelof’s general aesthetic for stories. Many hallmarks of his past work are on display here, from characters’ odd behavior only partially explained by flashbacks, or strange, poetic dialogue asides than no one seems to notice or question. While these sideways approaches to story help build the overall tone of the show, often these reveals and details feel cheap, and wouldn’t have been any less effective if introduced in a more straightforward manner.
The Leftovers is actually at its best when it dispenses with most of the intrigue and mystery and focuses on the toll the Sudden Departure has taken on its characters. There are a number of little grace notes throughout the first few episodes that reflect this new, bleaker world, like a scene in the pilot that demonstrates just how many high school students have found their faith (or at least the appearance of faith) since the disappearance. The third episode eschews the multi-story approach entirely and focuses solely on Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a pastor who refuses to believe the disappearance was God’s work. Eccleston gives a raw, gripping performance that’s concerned less with uncovering big picture answers and more with just making sense of each day as it comes. While these sort of tight-focus episodes are probably going to be rare, given the show’s short season run and large cast, it was a great example of making a concept so massive work in a personal way.
More than anything, The Leftovers manages to create a strong tone and sense of place, which helps to make some of the ominousness manageable. There’s a pervasive sense of loss and frustration even in small, day-to-day interactions. It’s like a town that’s just suffered a tragic accident, but it’s such a singular and esoteric situation that no one knows how to move on and start to heal. Some people deal with it by submitting for retroactive insurance policies or going to church more often, others cope by seeking cults or faith healers. High school sex parties are infused with a sense of nihilism. It’s a world where everyone is just waiting for the other shoe to drop, all the time.
I don’t know how The Leftovers is going to fare this season, although with the Lindelof and HBO behind it I can’t imagine it won’t get a second season. There have been countless attempts to recapture the lightning in a bottle of LOST, but maybe having one of the creators on board will make a difference. But whether or not it will become a television landmark of its own, The Leftovers is intriguing, depressing, occasionally frustrating, and always worth watching.
The Leftovers airs on Sunday nights on HBO, or on demand via HBO GO.