One day you’re in a car park, talking on the phone as you load your groceries into the car with your free hand. All your insecurities, rage and fears are a mile away as you look down at your son for the last time, right before life as you know it vanishes in the blink of an eye. Your understanding of the world crumbles away as you mourn the ones you’ve lost and an existence that made sense. You get confused, you get scared and you get angry. And then, when none of that makes you feel any better, you get dressed and go back to work.
Fans of Lost’s character-focussed musings will be glad to know that Damon Lindelof (co-creator and exec. producer on Lost) was not deterred by his extremely vocal critics and continues his philosophical endeavours with HBO’s The Leftovers. This is not a show about giving answers to its central mystery; it’s about the people dealing with not having any. Co-created by Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (who penned the book on which the series is based), The Leftovers finds itself some three years after 140 million people around the world (roughly 2% of the population) suddenly vanished without a trace. Despite the global proportions of the conceit, the show smartly grounds itself in the suburban community of Mapleton. The reduced scope immediately reassures the viewer that this is about the psyche of the average Joe and not the largely irrelevant question of ‘Why?’
There’s a deafening quiet that hangs over the population; a perpetual and communal morning inherent to a world that can’t comprehend its loss. The brilliance of the show is that the 2% isn’t enough to throw the world completely into disrepair, but it might be just the right amount of fear and uncertainty to free the internal demons that live within us all. A nihilistic doldrum is largely the default for the people of Mapleton as they go about their lives, but glimpses into a sleeping fury can be seen in sudden bursts of vitriol and violence. It’s a wonderfully fragile ecosystem that is one unlucky spark on a dry day from burning down completely.
At the core of the pilot is chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who is struggling to keep his family (Jill and Tom Garvey, played by Margaret Qualley and Chris Zylka respectively) together in the wake of their mother’s absence. Tom has dropped out of college and is spending his time out on a compound under the guidance of Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a spiritualistic leader whose ambitions hint at a violent conflict somewhere down the track. Jill is just as lost, but in a much more pedestrian ‘High school sucks and my dad doesn’t get me’ kind of way. Though it probably sets up less enticing material for the show to come back to, her story proves the more powerful of the siblings and gives us our best glimpse into the world’s defining melancholy.
Kevin serves as the viewer’s anchor into the show, but to call him the protagonist feels disingenuous. His sense of defeat and quiet rage are palpable, allowing him to casually erupt into violence and make us question if this is the kind of man we should believe in. Theroux serves the spotlight well, not only painting a layered portrait of a complex authoritarian figure, but acting as avatar for the world’s muted zeitgeist.
While the minute focus of the town does reduce the potential scope for stories, that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of moving parts. Three years in with no answers has people ready to take steps to be the ones that will define this new and uncertain era. Most obvious is a strange and growing movement called The Guilty Remnants, a cult-like group that have taken a vow of silence, dress in white and provoke the citizenry by staring at them and smoking. While they do have plenty to add subtextually, they are admittedly a little goofy in conception and come close to endangering the show’s initial believability. That said, they do make a strange kind of sense in this world and catalyze one of the pilot’s most powerful moments.
Not since NBC’s Awake has a pilot excited me this much. The Leftovers feels decidedly different from anything else. The characters are almost universally intriguing and there is so much juicy material to explore. The word ‘loss’ is thrown around a lot, but what is actually missing is somewhat more complicated than the disappearance of some people they once new. With the foundations of their reality dismantling, the population is frightened and uncertain, ready at any moment to give in to a restless chaos. In the periphery of the pilot a pack of once domesticated dogs have gone feral and are hunting down wildlife for food. Not only are they a frightening presence, they ask a question far more important and terrifying than where all the people went or what does it mean. They ask us just how little it would take to embrace our primal urges and do away with this grand experiment once and for all. I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10 – STICK WITH IT