New TV series kicks off tonightSunday, June 29, 2014
The Leftovers: 19 nervous breakdowns
The Washington Post (*)
Every single character on HBO’s new drama The Leftovers, which premiers tonight, is perpetually on the brink of this sort of breakdown, the release that is barely any release at all. They have good reason. Three years ago in the world of the show, 2 percent of the Earth’s population just vanished, and nobody knows why. The “Sudden Departure,” as it’s known, might have been the rapture, but it took Gary Busey, nonbelievers, sinners, murderers and pedophiles with just as much frequency as it took children, devoted parents, lovely friends, good Samaritans and the Pope. Life’s meaning, life’s possibility, life’s very continuation are all newly fraught and fragile. Everyone is on edge — and their jagged, frustrated funk is contagious. The Leftovers will make you feel like you just stubbed your toe after a very bad day, a credit to the show that makes for some tough-going television. Every time I misplaced my remote while watching, I wanted to break something. Or flip to a sitcom and remember that laughter is real.
The Leftovers is based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name and has been adapted for television by Lost’s Damon Lindelof. Set in the town of Mapleton, New York, the series traces a scattered and shattered family dealing with the repercussions of the Sudden Departure. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the police chief, is an angry, lonely father, taut with barely contained stress — no one has ever needed a massage more. His son Tom (Chris Zylka) is on the West Coast, working for Holy Wayne, a popular and perhaps charlatan spiritualist who claims he can hug the pain out of people. Kevin’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) lives with him, but he barely tries to rein her in as she experiments with sex, drugs and anomie. His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined the Guilty Remnant, a rapidly expanding religious group, all of whom have left their families, wear all white, smoke constantly, and never speak. (Brenneman, who has no lines through the first five episodes, does excellent work grappling with this very novelistic invention.) Surrounding the Garveys are, among others, a woman who lost her entire family in the departure, a minister hell-bent on proving the event was not the rapture by publishing the departed’s sins, a pack of rabid dogs, and a looming possibility that the tension between the town and the Guilty Remnant will become violent.
The novel, without exactly being a laugh a minute, skips from character to character in a close third-person narration that foregrounds the banalities and absurdities of suburban life, as they play out against the backdrop of, possibly, the end of days. For a book about a traumatized and grieving human race, it has a pretty light touch. But Lindelof eschews Perrotta’s suburbia satire for the unrelentingly bleak stuff, resulting in some tremendously moving scenes and hardly any respite.
The Leftovers is overwhelmingly, existentially serious, without succumbing to the relentlessly violent and masculine clichés of so much “serious” prestige TV. It is a vast ensemble show, loosely orbiting around a broken family trying to navigate an apocalyptic world in which the apocalypse is as mystifying and incomplete as everything that came before. It has more in common with The Walking Dead, another show that springs from a sci-fi-flavoured catastrophe and proceeds as grimly and grittily as possible, than it does other HBO dramas. But while The Leftovers is in almost every particular better than the immensely popular The Walking Dead, it also has none of that show’s cathartic, zombie-killing release. It is hard to imagine a show less designed for binge-watching than The Leftovers; in the case of this show, such an activity would be more aptly described as binging spiritual despair.