Here is where I’d usually stick a warning about spoilers, but let’s be honest here. Given the way information is barely delivered by HBO’s newest drama The Leftovers, I don’t think I could spoil anything even if I tried. The one big reveal in the episode – that Justin Theroux’s Police Chief Kevin Garvey is married to Amy Brenneman’s cult-following Laurie Garvey – has been part of the basic plot synopsis ever since the series was announced. Will that marriage have anything to do with the rest of the season? I can assume so, because that makes the most sense, but series creators Damon Lindelof and The Leftovers’ author Tom Perrota aren’t making it clear that anything will make tons of sense in the town of Mapleton, New York.
In the end, though, I was surprisingly pleased with this pilot episode, regardless of anything that comes after it. It has been three years since the world fell victim to the instantaneous disappearance of 2% of its population, and this Rapture-like premise is a canvas for all sorts of drama to play out on. While “chances are slim” that the average person would be severely affected by this random purging, some lost their entire families, and other couldn’t handle it all, allowing for a brief but deadly domino effect. (I mean, Anthony Bordain and Gary Busey are dead in this world, so who wouldn’t want to jump off a building?) Society has changed now, and it’s obvious everywhere you look, from the religiously even-minded (Christopher Eccleston's Matt Jamison) to the scientists being verbally abused for not being able to explain it all.
Kevin Garvey’s point-of-view is as a man whose father went buck nakedly insane (or something), whose children have grown away from him in different ways, and whose wife has joined the Guilty Remnant, an almost exclusively silent, chain-smoking, white outfit-wearing group of stalkers and mostly non-violent protesters led by Patti Levin (Ann Dowd). As the Remnant’s numbers are growing, Kevin wants less to do with them, both as a person and as a city official. This leads to an uncomfortable skirmish later at the town’s three-year anniversary remembrance ceremony. (The statue created for the public gathering is one of the show’s biggest laugh-out-loud moments, at least for someone as unsentimental about creepy statues as I am.)
There are immediate worries over several aspects of The Leftovers that I’ll let simmer for the next few episodes, but the heaviest one is that I can’t see the Remnant’s end game paying off very well. That’s mainly because I have no idea who they are or what their motives may be, but that’s the show’s fault at this point. I might assume they’re all smoking a lot to try and get lung cancer and die or something, but there are quicker ways to play that card. They stand around haunting Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbot until she’s inexplicably making terrible decisions. Their protest consists of sports stadium-ish lettered posters that read “Stop Wasting Your Breath.” None of them really DO anything that skips past annoying (at least until that one guy retaliates against Kevin near the end of the episode), so I don’t yet know why I’m supposed to think these are bad people. But that’s to come, I suppose.
I expected the episode to be as depressing as the teasers made them out to be, but there was more rage bubbling beneath the surface than sadness. Admittedly, some of that was my own rage during the teenager party scenes, where sexual liberation is king and everyone is playing a phone app that’s like Spin the Bottle, but with a Wheel of Fortune-style bunch of commands like “Choke” and “Fuck.” (I really wanted to see a “Play Battleship With” option come up.) One of the Frost twins (Charlie and Max Carver) trendily asks a character, “Did you guys spin?” and it made me want to throw my own phone at my television.
The teens are how we meet Kevin’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), whose past braininess morphed into angst and mehness after the Rapture thing. Qualley rises above the usual “mad teen on a TV show” schtick, but she’s going to need a bigger platform than just daddy rebellion. And for everyone’s sanity and appetite, let’s hope The Leftovers omits any more scenes where someone cries while choking another person who is masturbating in his boxers. There’s your other big spoiler.
Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) is almost completely out of this picture. He's an underling for a mysterious guy named Wayne (Patterson Joseph) who claims to be some kind of a prophet that can “heal” people of their…something. Tom has a crush on a girl that is more important than she seems; and the way she goes gaga for gummy worms makes her seem infantile. Mark my words, though: that Wayne is perhaps definitely maybe going to be one of the major players in this series.
Does anything I just talked about sound like it came from the same show? Since Lindelof attached himself to The Leftovers, the big comparison people have been making is with Lost, wondering just how heavily he would play up the mysterious aspects of Perrotta’s not-that-mysterious novel, and whether or not it would stick the landing like Lost arguably didn’t. Instead, people should have been wondering if it would be anything like Lindelof’s other co-written projects, like Star Trek Into Darkness or World War Z, where a bunch of shit just constantly happens with only the vaguest amount of attention given to explanations. That’s what my initial take on The Leftovers is.
Still, the performances are good, the tone is consistently offbeat and Peter Berg directed the hell out of most of the episode, reining it in and giving scenes the perfect amount of space to breathe. (Breathing in all that Remnant smoke, no doubt.) The humor is there if you want it to be, and often in the darkest places; watching Kevin self-metaphorically refer to sex as “cleaning out a gutter” slayed me. One final warning: it’s not a series that dog lovers will take too kindly to, as part of the plot deals with a violent change in the ones that watched the 2% disappear. Deer lovers may want to cover their eyes as well.
But if you can deal with animal violence, the C-word, and everything else that you’d expect from a new HBO show, then The Leftovers is ready to make your sense of understanding disappear for the next nine Sunday nights.