This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends; Not with a bang, but with cryptic mysteries, several cults, and a bunch of dog murders. Or, at least, that’s how HBO’s new series The Leftovers would have us believe it will go. Allow me to explain with mild spoilers for just the first episode.
The end of the world will be shadowed dramatically.
The Leftovers begins with a Rapture-like event on October 14 of some nameless roughly modern year whereby 2% of the world’s population, from babies to old women, suddenly vanish, clothing and all. Three years later, the small town of Mapleton, NY, is planning their “Heroes Day” remembrance parade to commemorate the missing and Police Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is concerned that a group called the Guilty Remnants, one of the many nascent cults that have sprung up since The Disappearance, will make problems at the event. Kevin’s teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Quailey) is both despondent about her shattered family and wrestling with her own teenage demons while her brother, Tom (Chris Zylka), is estranged from his family and working for a charismatic cult leader who claims to be able to heal people.
The Guilty Remnants, meanwhile, are indeed planning a silent but antagonistic protest of the parade. The GRs are notable for wearing all while, never speaking, and being required to always smoke a cigarette. I know. Weird. But, you know. Cult. Regardless, despite being led to believe that the Garvey family was shattered by the disappearance of Mrs. Garvey, we learn that she is actually very much appeared but is a key member of the GRs and actively working to recruit a new member in Meg Abbot (Liv Tyler), a woman about to be married but for some reason not terribly excited about that prospect. The four family members form our core characters and the myriad others radiate from their hub.
Just your average Chief of Police, chief-ing away.
So what we have is a thinly disguised interpersonal drama set against the backdrop of a fantasy story wherein something extremely mysterious has happened and lots of people with interweaving backstories connect. If you’re thinking that this maybe sounds a lot like something else that you’ve seen recently there’s a reason: the show is the product of Damon Lindelof, the former Executive Producer and head writer of Lost. And boy oh boy, does it ever show.
The Leftovers layers on the mysteries. What was The Disappearance? We don’t know, but we’re told that it emphatically was probably not actually the Rapture, or else how else to explain how it is that in addition to all the sinless and blameless babies that Disappeared along with them went a fair share of jerks, scumbags, moral miscreants and other general bad people. (A news program runs a humorous “In Memoriam” segment of the famous who Disappeared including Pope Benedict, Condoleezza Rice, Solomon Rushdie, Jennifer Lopez, and Gary Busey.) Why does the religious healer receive visions that tell him “the Grace Period is over”? Why does Garvey have disturbing dreams about animals embedding themselves into his car? And what’s up with the pack of dogs that supposedly went feral and now live in the woods and why is a man with a massive speech impediment trying to hunt them all down and shoot them? “You can’t just shoot our dogs,” Garvey tells the man upon seeing him go after a pack of the dogs that seem to appear out of nowhere. “They’re not our dogs,” the man mumbles cryptically. “Not anymore.”
All of this adds up to a show with a fair amount of potential, especially given that this is HBO which is far more willing to let its shows be experimental and intense than national networks are. And the first episode does a good job establishing the world and teasing out the key questions of the series as well as making us if not care about the main characters, at least have more than a passing interest in seeing what happens to them. The big problem will always remain Damon Lindelof himself.
"We're going to have to have everything not-explained to us by Allison Janney, aren't we?"
Lindelof really, really wants to write smart, provocative shows that use fantastical and supernatural elements to tell very relatable human stories. That’s a fine goal, but the problem is that he tends to trip over his own shoes when he attempts to meet it. He wants us, the viewers, to be more interested in the characters he creates than the mystery that brings them together. That’s absolutely what should happen, but unfortunately the man has a history of succumbing to a need to add complexity upon complexity for no reason other than to make the story interesting or cool. Lost collapsed under its own bloated weight for this exact reason. To put it simply, you can make a show about a big supernatural event and then tell the audience not to care about that event. Characters and interactions will always trump plot when creating a TV show, but you can’t expect people not to want to know about the thing that was the show’s pitch to begin with.
I’m watching The Leftovers for now, mostly just to see if Lindelof and the other writers have achieved a sense of maturity about how they write fantasy and sci-fi. If they can avoid the strawman arguments that Lindelof tends to set up in his own writing by having one character argue religion and another argue science as if that were a debate that had never happened before, they’ve got the kernel of a good story here. If, on the other hand, a smoke monster shows up at any point, I’m out.