With the premiere of HBO’s new drama series ‘The Leftovers’, I’m experiencing an overwhelming urge to make a pun about the show feeling warmed-over or stale. That title is practically begging for it. Ultimately, I suppose it wouldn’t be fair for me to dismiss the entire series after just one episode. Still, I’m less than amazed so far.
Despite lingering resentment from disgruntled ‘Lost’ fans and viewers of the various crappy movies he’s recently written (‘Prometheus’, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’, ‘Star Trek into Darkness’), HBO took a pretty big risk by greenlighting a new high-concept drama from show-runner Damon Lindelof. As I wrote in our recent poll on the subject, I will defend ‘Lost’, even the ending, but I can’t defend Lindelof’s feature film output. As such, I can’t help but have mixed feelings about whatever he does next, and the network’s glossy ads for ‘The Leftovers’ have left me equally intrigued and skeptical.
The show is based on a novel by author Tom Perrotta (‘Little Children’), who also serves as writer and producer for the series. The story follows a disparate group of characters in the small town of Mapleton (which is supposedly in New York, but looks exactly like southern California) after a Rapture-like event caused the mysterious and unexplained disappearance of 2% of the world’s population. That equates to about 140 million people – which is a lot, but it sure seems like Mapleton got hit disproportionately hard, as just about everyone in the town lost someone close to them.
Three years after the vanishing, people still want answers, and everyone (literally every single character introduced on the show) is still miserable. Of them, no one is more miserable than police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). As much as he tries to keep his shit together, he has a drinking problem and we’re told that he had a nervous breakdown. A brief flashback suggests that he was having sex at the time of the disappearance, and I have to assume that the person he was having sex with probably vanished during the act. Yeah, I suppose that would be enough to scramble a guy’s brains.
As the town prepares for a “Heroes Day” parade to commemorate the missing, centered around the unveiling of a super-tacky statue of a baby being sucked up to Heaven from its mother’s arms, Garvey worries that the memorial will be disrupted by a religious cult called the Guilty Remnant. Members of the G.R. describe themselves as “living reminders.” They dress entirely in white, have taken vows of silence, smoke incessantly for allegedly religious reasons that are insufficiently explained, and make it their mission to prevent anyone from ever moving on with their lives. They stalk and silently harass people by standing around, staring, and generally just being in the way when no one wants them there. This has the effect of aggravating people who are already in grief, and frequently sparks outbreaks of violence. Sure enough, the G.R. show up at the parade and trigger a riot.
The show has a big ensemble cast. Among the other characters we follow are a young woman (Liv Tyler) who leaves her fiancé to join the G.R., one of the main culties (Amy Brenneman) who turns out to be Garvey’s estranged wife (I take it she wasn’t the person he was having sex with that night), and Garvey’s teenage daughter Jill, who’s even mopier than the average teenager and goes to a house party where she plays a very disturbing game of “Spin the iPhone.” (Possible outcomes include “Fuck,” “Choke” and “Burn.”)
Essentially, the series is misery-porn that wallows in the unhappiness of characters whose paths constantly intersect to remind each other of how unpleasant their lives are. (See also: ‘Crash’, ‘Babel’, ’21 Grams’.) This gets old pretty quickly, and the show will need some variety to keep my interest for much longer. With 98% of the world’s population not taken, surely there must be a considerable number of people who weren’t directly affected by the tragedy? Where are those people? Has really no one attempted to move on in the past three years?
I find the cult members’ religiously-motivated smoking to be a silly contrivance, and my eyes rolled at the “teenagers” picked straight from CW central casting, most of whom are clearly in their late 20s and have ridiculously chiseled and perfect physiques. Where do characters stricken with such debilitating ennui find the time to hit the gym for four to five hours a day?
I want to give this show the benefit of the doubt, but honestly, the more I think about it, the more absurd I find it. I also suspect that neither Lindelof nor Perrotta are much interested in answering the mystery of where the missing people disappeared to. I foresee apologists claiming that the story is really about how this tragedy affects the characters, but I don’t have enough interest in these characters to care about them yet.
Maybe the next few episodes will turn me around, but I’m just not sure that I can overcome my skepticism.