HBO is definitely firing on all cylinders right now. With arguably one of the greatest shows on television in Game of Thrones, it is easy to get pumped for whatever new show they come out with. So when I heard that HBO was teaming up with LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof to make a show called The Leftovers, I was all in. LOST, even with its “kick in the nads” ending, is still one of my all-time favorites. It was mysterious, thought provoking, and just downright good! Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want the same show nor want to feel like I was watching LOST again with this show. Well folks be assured that The Leftovers is nothing like LOST. But frankly I don’t know what this is.
The Leftovers is obsessed with grief and terror—but, rather than make you jump, it makes you cry. As in its source—a novel by Tom Perrotta—the show’s premise is that an unexplained event has taken place: a Rapture-like disappearance. Two percent of the population—kids, grownups, the Pope, Gary Busey—are gone, poof, vanished, into the blue. When the show begins, it’s three years later. The community left behind is still wrecked, in large part because no one has any answers. Some people repress the question. Others rage about it. The town celebrates the missing as “heroes,” but not everybody agrees with that interpretation.
Gradually, the show reveals the outline of a few characters, including a devastated family. There’s Kevin (Justin Theroux), a local cop prone to fits of violent anger, bad dreams, and is a dog killer! His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has abandoned her loved ones and joined a cult called the Guilty Remnant. Their sulky daughter lives with Kevin; their son is out West, working for another cult leader, Holy Wayne, who offers up “healing hugs.” Over time, we learn more about the inner workings of the Guilty Remnant, whose members live together on the edge of town, dress all in white, and chain-smoke. They communicate only in writing. While their philosophy is unclear, they come across as nihilists, nonbelievers who refuse to let anyone move on: they infuriate people in the town by stalking them, hovering and staring, a reminder of the pain of the incident. If this sounds confusing, it is. The narrative flow is murky and chaotic, and at times it chokes up. Initially, I kept mixing up sad brunettes who resembled Liv Tyler—among them Liv Tyler, as a young woman who leaves her fiancé to join the Guilty Remnant.
But The Leftovers builds in potency. As I watched the third episode—featuring an eccentric preacher (the terrific Christopher Eccleston) who believes that the “disappeared” were sinners—all my distance, and my distrust, crumbled. It was a morbid (and slightly LOST-like) fable about the preacher gambling to save his church, and losing. Much of the show is hard to describe, because it’s not about plot, the usual center of TV drama, but about images, with poetic sequences that capture the way that people who grieve differently smack into conflict. In one powerful sequence, the preacher offers compassion to the Guilty Remnant—only to have Laurie walk toward him blowing a whistle, the sound shattering the air with her refusal. In another sequence, cunningly edited, a baby doll is assembled in a factory, piece by piece, then bought, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in the town’s nativity scene—and then, without explanation, it’s gone. Members of the Guilty Remnant sneak into people’s homes, steal their family photos, and leave empty frames. It’s not that these moments make sense, exactly; it’s that they stayed with me. Like laughing at comedy, or shrieking at horror, crying is another kind of review: it’s your body saying yes to the story.
There’s an argument to be made for tv shows that require the “three strikes rule”. I mean that they take a few installments to convert you. Sometimes this is because they’re doing something “slow-burning” or sometimes it’s because they’re doing something alienating. If, after you’ve watched three episodes of The Leftovers, you decide that it’s not for you, go ahead and bail. The show has a grandiose quality. It’s structured in a looping, musical way which doesn’t follow the quintessential “tv formula”. But it captures the disorientation of grief in a way that is provocative and rare for television. It feels less like a puzzle than like a slow-fuse meditation on the nature of death itself—with or without the Rapture. Why them and not me? How could the ones we loved, or hated, be here, then gone? One scene, in which Laurie—whose silent face flickers with contempt—suddenly breaks down, broke me down. But it didn’t feel manipulative, as in a Lifetime sobfest, just cathartic. It also felt like being shoved underwater. LOST was a mystery that never got solved, leaving many viewers furious. The Leftovers is something new and it doesn’t promise answers. It just asks to be experienced.