Review: HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’ a tour de force of devastation and grief

06.25.14 4 years ago 69 Comments


What divine madness could have possibly compelled Damon Lindelof to involve himself with “The Leftovers”?

Why would the co-creator and longtime showrunner of “Lost,” who endured so much public abuse from some corners because of that series' finale, decide that his next TV project would be a complicated story marked by despair, spirituality and a complete lack of answers to a sweeping cosmic mystery – in other words, three of the things “Lost” fans tended to hate the most? Why would he work with Tom Perrotta to adapt Perrotta's novel about a Rapture-like event, and find a way to make what was already a dark and melancholy story feel so unsparingly bleak that, when I described the show to my wife, she responded, “It doesn't sound like it's a real show. It sounds like it's a psychological experiment Lindelof did to see how many TV critics he could get to commit suicide”?

Maybe it's masochism. Lindelof finally quit Twitter last fall (appropriately, on the date of the show's mysterious Departure), after spending three years flagellating himself in response to the tweets of “Lost” finale haters, and perhaps he needed another source of pain and discomfort.

Or maybe he was drawn to “The Leftovers” – a show that in many ways feels even more deserving of the title “Lost” than that one about the island filled with polar bears, pirate ships and ranch dressing – because he saw in Pertotta's book the chance to do something truly special. Maybe he saw a way to get at many of the same concerns that suffused “Lost,” but without the same sci-fi trappings and mythological obsessions that eventually swallowed that show's reputation whole. Maybe he saw a way to take advantage of being on HBO and tell the rawest, most unflinching, most ambitious version of this story – a meditation not only on loss and grief, but on fundamental questions of the meaning of life, death and whatever cosmic force may have placed us here – and not worry in the slightest about commercial considerations, or about raising the ire of all the people who still want to complain about the outrigger, the sideways universe and the numbers.

Maybe he saw the opportunity in “The Leftovers” to make something great. Because he sure as hell has. 

Even in a television landscape that includes “The Walking Dead,” “Hannibal” and HBO's own “Game of Thrones” – dramas so committed to a violent, despairing worldview that they all but dare you to keep watching – “The Leftovers” (it debuts Sunday night at 10) is a show that will make some of its viewers want to slit their wrists. Many will hate it. But there will be viewers in whom it strikes a chord so deeply that they will feel themselves overwhelmed by it in the best possible way: not like they're drowning in the misery, but like it's teaching them a new way to breathe.

The story, as in Perrotta's book, involves a mysterious event in which two percent of the world's population simply vanishes, the missing chosen seemingly at random, with no accounting for race, nationality, age, gender or creed. It is the Rapture, but not in any way the Scriptures have described, and no one knows what to make of it – least of all the traditional representatives of organized religion, who have thrown up their hands at the whole thing, and who have been elbowed aside by unsettling new religious orders.

Of the show's main characters, one has joined a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members dress all in white, chain smoke as a sacrament, communicate only through handwritten notes, and silently stand in judgment of the people around them who have attempted to go on with their lives as if this world-shaking cataclysm never happened. Another has become the acolyte of a charismatic man who claims to be able to “hug the pain out of people.” And another is an Episcopal minister who has taken it upon himself to hand out fliers detailing the many sins of the disappeared, in hopes they won't all be viewed as saints (or, as they are officially designated by government bureaucracy, “heroes”).

The bulk of the action takes place three years after the disappearances, in a world that has seemingly gone back to normal, but with cracks everywhere in society's foundation. The lack of an explanation for the departure, or even a pattern of those who left, is driving everyone else a little mad. No one knows what this means, for either those who were taken or those who weren't, and so some grow numb (the first episode features the least sexy teenage sex party in the history of filmed entertainment), while others lash out. (Though the violence isn't nearly as frequent as on most of its HBO colleagues, it is very graphic when it comes; Peter Berg, who directed the first two episodes, clearly wants you to feel the difference between the more traditional forms of death and the silent, bloodless, mysterious departures.)

The questions the show's characters have are the same ones we grapple with in the real world every day – Why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens when we die? Is there any order lurking underneath all this chaos? – but brought into sharp focus by the very public and baffling event that has transformed this fictional universe. To the people of “The Leftovers,” God is unquestionably real, even if He (or She, or It) may not be quite as we've been told for centuries. And proof of God's existence provides no answers, but only more questions.

In that way, it is very much like “Lost,” even though the shows on the whole could not feel more different. The characters on “The Leftovers” are curious about what caused the departure, and what it all means, but the series itself has no interest in either of those questions. It simply wants to explore what it would feel like to go through an experience like this – even if the answer, fairly consistently, is “Just terrible, thank you.”

Our guide to all this madness – and someone possibly in its grip – is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), police chief of the fictional New York hamlet of Mapleton. Kevin did not, as far as we know at the series' beginning, lose anyone in the Departure, but it has shaken his life and family to pieces. He is trying to maintain order in a place where everyone is confused, and angry, and the show smartly toys with Theroux's likeable, sturdy screen presence by hinting that there may be something seriously wrong with Kevin. It's a complex, riveting performance that basically allows for any interpretation of the character to be revealed as valid down the line, which isn't an easy thing to pull off.

As Laurie, a local woman who has joined the Guilty Remnant, Amy Brenneman is extraordinary. It is a wordless performance, and the nature of the cult generally leaves its members with only two expressions – smug secretiveness and withering disdain – and yet she finds a world of emotion in the silence and the stony looks, and along the way helps you understand why anyone would abandon their lives to join this menacing pack of loons. And as Matt, the minister handing out all the fliers about the sins of the departed, Christopher Eccleston is a marvel of cheerful perseverance in the face of overwhelming anger and mockery.

Berg has always been an expressionistic director, but usually in a jittery fashion that give his other films and TV shows (including both versions of “Friday Night Lights”) the feel of a documentary. “The Leftovers” is more classically composed, and yet it is every bit as much of an immersive experience as going to the football fields of Dillon, Texas. This show's broken world is a hard one to shake off, and for me a hard one simply to step away from. In the age of second and third screens, social media and push alerts, it becomes difficult to sit through an episode of even the best shows on television without feeling the siren call of my inbox or my Facebook wall, yet I wanted to do nothing while watching each episode of “The Leftovers” (HBO made four of the first five available to critics) than to finish it – not to hasten the end of an unpleasant experience, but to keep from breaking the show's emotional spell.

I realize this spell will elude many, who will turn off the show shaking their heads about the depressing tone, or at Lindelof for again giving us a group of disparate survivors of a tragedy, grappling with mysteries he'll never be able to explain to his audience's satisfaction. (Not that he wants or needs to in this case.)

I imagine Lindelof could have tried for a more commercial take on the material, one that wasn't so relentless in its sense of doom, maybe one that mixed in some wisecracks (maybe Wayne the magical hugger could give people nicknames right before wrapping them in his powerful arms), and a genuine attempt to get to the bottom of what caused the Departure. But anything short of the approach Lindelof, Perrotta, Berg and the rest took would ring false. This is a show about grief, and how and why we move on from it – or how we can't let go of it – and it has to put you through the wringer in confusing, uncomfortable fashion if it has any hope of working.

Maybe a more overtly “Lost”-y approach would make the tent a little wider, but then it would be a show where a lot of people would say “I'm not sure what to make of this, but, um, maybe I'll keep watching? Because HBO?” This way will be more polarizing than anything Lindelof did on ABC, and many viewers may find it tougher to get through than the episode where Jack got his tattoos. But viewers who find themselves on the right emotional wavelength for what “The Leftovers” is doing will find themselves becoming (sorry) lost in it, even in the face of friends and loved ones shaking their heads and trying to slip Prozac into their smoothies.

Maybe believing that there's an audience for this show, however selective even within the HBO universe, makes me as much of a holy fool as Reverend Matt, or as Lindelof himself. But I believe in “The Leftovers.” And I want to see more of it. Now.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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