Any series that starts off with a baby screaming and crying and a dog being shot is not one that seems will lend itself to levity; and indeed, The Leftovers is a very serious and very dour show. In the deluge of reviews that landed this week about (it being based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, directed in part by Friday Night Lights‘ Peter Berg and overseen by Lost‘s Damon Lindelof), the overwhelming feeling seemed to be that The Leftovers is a show whose crushing emotional weight will either draw you in, or repel you fully. And, if you thought it might grow out of it, well, the unrelenting sadness goes on for at least the first half of the season (which is as far as has been made available to critics). Hit the jump for a reheating of The Leftovers (a joke I promise to make only once … maybe).
The Leftovers sets up the premise that 2% of the world’s population has suddenly disappeared. Where they were taken to, who they were taken by, and for what purpose remains unknown (and of course, will it happen again?) Three years after the event, these questions are still a national (and surely world-wide) preoccupation bordering on obsession. Cults have formed, holidays have been federally mandated, and people are just friggin’ sad.
Throughout “Pilot,” there are references made in the background (mostly by talking heads on news networks) that 2% of the world’s population is a small number, all things considered. Diseases have wiped out more people in a fell swoop, like smallpox and the plague. But The Leftovers seems, as of this first hour, an expansive idea that wants us to forget about those larger numbers and questions (like how one block in New Jersey seemed to have about 5 people taken all at once in the show’s cold open), and redirect our attention instead to personal suffering.
The suffering in “Pilot” was concentrated primarily on the Garvey family. Patriarch Kevin (Justin Theroux) is a police chief who is trying to hold the town together, but whose family is scattered. His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined a mysterious chain-smoking cult who trades in silence and a lot of white clothing, while son Tom (Chris Zylka) has joined a different kind of guru-led cult himself. Daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is punching other girls in the nose and calling them cunts, and having to bury a dog her father kept in his trunk.
Many other series have dealt with family dramas set against a background of death (or disappearance), most notably Six Feet Under. But that series always tempered its darkness with humor and quirkiness, particularly in regards to death. If that show’s point was to make lead character Nate (Peter Krause) accept death and not fear it, through the love and experiences of his family and the funeral home business, then The Leftovers is the opposite. No one is accepting these disappearances, no one is moving on, and no one feels better.
The Leftovers, as a miniseries, could have been a deep meditation on grief (like Showtime’s extraordinarily difficult documentary series Time of Death), but the thing that keeps it moving forward as a series is that these disappearances aren’t deaths, they are something else. It’s something inexplicable and unknown. “Pilot” takes great pains to put aside the idea of this event as the Biblical Rapture, opening up the possibility to essentially anything else (Kevin’s alien-esque dream was particularly worrying for the series). This is potentially The Leftovers‘ greatest weakness, because it’s not a show that seems to want to focus on the mystery (a la Lost), but instead, the emotional fallout (and coping, like the proliferation of cults) of those left behind.
Of course, this was just the first episode. There’s a lot left to explore. Speaking personally, I didn’t like the experience of watching “Pilot” at all — I thought it was needlessly slow, unrelentingly dour, and kind of a mess in terms of tone (what is it trying to say to viewers about where it’s headed, and through what it’s already shown us?) But it’s an hour whose concept stuck with me, if nothing else. Maybe its exploration of grief is cathartic or deeply understood for some. For others, it’s a slog that may not be worth succumbing to on a weekly basis. Jill’s friend called her “intense and melancholic.” That’s the most accurate descriptor for the series so far. But “we’re still here” to see how it plays out. For now.
Episode Rating: C+
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Peter Berg is great, I’m just not sure his shaky-cam aesthetic was right at all for this show. I liked his little cameo at the compound, though.
— I couldn’t help but think, when they showed the feral dogs, that “packs of stray dogs are controlling most of the major cities in North America …”
— Did we need the autoerotic asphyxiation, though? Is this what the kids are into these days? Chanting “choke! choke! choke!” to each other via an app? Disappear me too, please.
— Christopher Eccleston as the requisite crazy preacher … I hope he makes this character more interesting than every. single. one. who has come before.
— How horrible was that statue the town put up?
— There was a kind of joke with the list of celebrities who were “taken,” but it did not fit in with the overall tone of the pilot at all.
— So happy that Buddy Garrity (Brad LeLand) is back on my screen.
— Also, hey Liv Tyler! I didn’t really get into the specifics of this episode in the review because I honestly don’t know what the cabbage was going on. I expect we’ll get a better impression in future weeks.
— The “don’t waste your breath” signs made me laugh, given how they are chain smokers.
— I really disliked this premiere, but the premise is interesting enough to stick with it. Also, there’s the great cast to consider.