Series premiere review: ‘The Leftovers’ – ‘Pilot’

06.29.14 4 years ago 163 Comments

“The Leftovers” debuted on HBO tonight. I published a review of the early part of the season on Wednesday, and an interview with creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta on Thursday, and now I have specific thoughts on the first episode coming up just as soon as I wonder how Gary Busey made the cut…

“Please come home.” -Kevin Garvey

In that interview, both Lindelof and Perrotta talked about how they didn't initially intend the story (first in Perrotta's book, then in this show) to be quite so bleak. (Perrotta originally set out to write “an apocalyptic comedy of sorts.”) But the material kept moving them in this direction, until we got to an episode that opens and closes in the toughest fashion imaginable: at the beginning with the mother's crying baby vanishing from the laundromat (and the little boy in the parking lot losing his father) and at the end with Kevin tearfully gunning down the pack of rabid dogs.

There were ways to walk the viewer into this universe in a more delicate fashion, and we get occasional hints of them elsewhere, like the scene where Kevin and the mom from the opening scene are at a bar watching a newscast listing all the celebrities who were taken in the Departure(*). The pilot isn't without humor (I laugh every time Jill realizes she went too far with her pantomime of hanging herself), but it never flinches from the emotional reality of its metaphysical premise. Too many high-concept shows are afraid to be about what they're actually about, for fear of scaring off potential viewers; “The Leftovers” is exactly about what it's about, and we'll see how many people are willing to get pummeled by it over the next few months.

(*) Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in the writer's room as they were deciding whether Shaq or Charles Barkley should have been among the missing.

What I've always found interesting about the story is that it focuses on the Garvey family, who lost absolutely no one close to them in the Departure, but who have all lost each other as a result. Laurie (whose true identity the pilot tries to keep secret until near the end) abandoned Kevin and the kids to join the Guilty Remnant. Tommy quit college and ran off to be an acolyte of Wayne. Jill and Kevin are still physically together, but she's numb and angry, and he may well be losing his damn mind. We already know that his father cracked up on the job(**), and many of his scenes in the pilot are presented ambiguously. Does he wake up naked in his house after a bad dream, for instance, or was he the one who trashed his kitchen without realizing he was doing it? And if this man is meant to be our guide to this crazy, devastated world, how much can we trust either him or the show?

(**) The quick cut to the naked man running through somebody's yard isn't of Kevin (who has an elaborate back tattoo), but a much older man. Like most of this quick flashbacks in the pilot, it's confusing (and probably meant to be).

There's a lot of information to be conveyed in a short amount of time (even with a 75-minute pilot), and not all of it comes across perfectly here, like what exactly it is that Wayne and Congressman Buddy Garrity do together that so lifts Buddy's spirits. (Some of the later episodes I've seen narrow their focus, and are even more effective as a result.) But what Lindelof, Perrotta and Peter Berg (who has a bit part as a member of Wayne's security force) are primarily focused on is the empty, hopeless, confused feeling that comes from living in this world, whether you're Nora Durst, who lost her entire family in the Departure, or you're Laurie Garvey, who could still talk to her husband and kids if she wanted to, but has instead run off to smoke with the Guilty Remnant.

The Remnant are the book's most memorable invention, and they've come to life beautifully here. Silent, dressed in white, chain smoking, they're like obnoxious, passive-aggressive ghosts, haunting the town and its people, and yet in a way that clearly is tapping into what others are feeling. Their ranks are not small, and their stalking of Liv Tyler's Meg doesn't anger her, but rather encourages her to join their ranks. She feels as lost as everyone else, and the Remnant seems to have an answer, even if that answer is austere and cult-like in nature. Because who seems more miserable, ultimately: Laurie Garvey sleeping on thin mattresses in the Remnant compound, or her daughter going to that nihilistic party and crying while she helps a guy get off?

Again, I don't know how many of you are going to have the patience for this going forward, but I'm all in.

Some other thoughts:

* The show employs two character actors I'm always happy to see in Michael Gaston (as the mysterious dog-killer) and Ann Dowd (as Patti, the head of the Guilty Remnant, who breaks her silence briefly to welcome Meg).

* Everyone was right about how disturbing the Heroes Day statue was. Yikes.

* Christopher Eccleston doesn't get a ton to do here as Matt, who hands out fliers pointing out the sins of many of the “Heroes,” but his reaction to the Departure feels true to human nature, given how many conspiracy theories sprang up about 9/11, and even Newtown, in the years after they happened.

What did everybody else think?

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