Time heals all wounds, or so the old saw goes. But that assumes there’s some sort of closure, some way to rationalize the pain of a deeply felt loss.
Imagine what would happen if you lost loved ones – if everyone in the world lost loved ones – but not due to disease or accident or war. Imagine one out of every 50 people on earth simply vanished into thin air, all at once, without warning. And years later, those left behind are still no closer to understanding what happened, or why.
It would be like drawing a serrated blade across the entire human psyche, leaving a painful, festering cut that simply won’t scar over.
The Leftovers is a show about grief. Specifically, how the people of the picturesque town of Mapleton, N.Y., are coping with the event that’s come to be known as the Sudden Departure, when 2% of the world’s population disappeared on a mid-October day. Three years have passed, and still no one knows where they went. Or why these particular people were chosen. Or if they were chosen at all.
If the 9/11 terror attacks – with a narrative we can understand, if not fully absorb, and a loss of nearly 3,000 souls – can continue to cast a shadow across the world 13 years later, imagine what the completely unexplained loss of more than 140 million people would do to us. The religious, scientific and social implications would be staggering.
It’s a hell of a premise for a show. And a hell of challenging show to love.
Premiering Sunday on HBO Canada, The Leftovers is the newest TV drama by Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost and writer/producer of Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus and other big screen sci-fi fare. It’s also executive produced by Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel the series is based on, and Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) who directs the first two episodes.
Lindelof’s involvement brings a certain set of expectations, and warning flags, to The Leftovers. Here we have another show with diverse characters (complete with flashbacks and episodes that revolve largely around just one person), unexplained weirdness and an overarching central mystery.
But where Lost had occasional light touches to offset the metaphysical drama, The Leftovers is almost entirely devoid of joy, at least in its first three episodes. Mapleton is full of people dealing with the Sudden Departure in their own ways: Some, like police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) seem to be barely holding their sanity together. Others, like Garvey’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman) have joined a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members dress all in white, never speak and chain-smoke cigarettes.
Local priest Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) fights back against the notion that the Sudden Departure was the Biblical Rapture by posting photos of the Departed, along with their sins and crimes, around Mapleton. His sister Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) lost her husband and both children, making her an object of curiosity and pity in the town, which she uses to further her agenda.
Liv Tyler plays Meg Abbott, who abandons her life to join the Guilty Remnant. Margaret Qually is Garvey’s straight-A student daughter who begins to act out, her teenage angst magnified a hundredfold by existential despair. There’s a charlatan who claims he can hug the pain out of people, a mystery man in a pickup truck who shoots stray dogs driven mad by having witnessed humans vanishing, a hardass mayor who just wants the town to return to normalcy and many other intriguing characters.
But man, the show is so dark and dreary. It feels less like a Lindelof jam than a hybrid of two cinematic Davids, Fincher and Lynch. At times it’s hard to tell if the writers are being deliberately and annoyingly obtuse, or if they’re simply asking for patience and careful analysis. (Lindelof has reportedly said that unlike Perrotta’s novel, the TV show will ultimately explain the Sudden Departure. But he also said we’d understand what happened at the end of Lost.)
A dark, painful, fascinating and infuriating show, The Leftovers is uncommon TV fare, even for HBO. I expect it will find a small but devoted fanbase, pulled in by its arty, grim aesthetic. But like 98% of the show’s population, the rest of us may be left scratching our heads and wondering why.