The Leftovers: Pilot review

HBO's The Leftovers isn't pretty, but it sure is compelling. Here's our review of the first episode.

The Leftovers begins with a woman and her infant child at the laundromat. The woman complains endlessly about all the inconveniences of her life as her child cries over her petty, whining murmurs.  All those trivial little annoyances are about to lose all of their meaning, because in an instant, her child is gone. So are some 140 million others, about 2 percent of the world’s population, but big numbers like that are hard to contextualize. All that matters is that her child has vanished in a flash, without a warning, without a reason, without any plausible explanation that doesn’t rely on religious text or belief in the supernatural, and those minor grumblings have turned into agonizing, horrified cries, much more primal than those of her child’s that she chose to ignore.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: The Leftovers is an ugly show. I don’t mean that aesthetically. Quite the contrary. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor) infuses the show with some striking direction that matches the tone of the proceedings, but those proceedings are ugly. The emotions that are displayed by the characters and the emotions evoked in the audience are heavy and almost downright unpleasant, but the fact that they are being presented at all on television feels important. A misery fest like this isn’t for everyone, but it’s undeniably gripping stuff, dealing with the messy feelings surrounding mortality in a creative way.

The show comes to you from the minds of Tom Perrotta, whose book of the same name loosely inspires the show, and polarizing TV vet Damon Lindelof, the man that brought you Lost. I won’t get into my feelings on the man’s former work, but his fingerprints are all over this one. A mystery that has religious undertones, menacing factions of people claiming to have answers, surreal dream sequences, and cautionary animals all are here, but there’s not a swashbuckling Sawyer to be found, only confused, grieving people. One has to wonder what Lindelof’s headspace was like when making such a dark and solemn affair.

Our protagonist, who is looking like yet another male TV anti-hero, is chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). Kevin didn’t lose anyone on that fateful day, October 14, but in the three years since he has. His wife and son have left to join separate, cult-like compounds, the former choosing the Guilty Remnant, a silent yet disruptive force in the fictional town of Mapleton, New York that dresses all in white and smokes to “proclaim their faith,” and the latter to follow an English prophet-type that talks about impending doom.

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Kevin is left at home to sulk with his daughter, Jill, a particularly moody teenager even by this new grim world’s standards. Theroux is fantastic in the role, burning up like a volcano that could bubble over at any moment, and he is particularly convincing working with Margaret Qualley’s Jill. Theroux believably portrays a damaged father who loves his children even if he doesn’t know what to say to them. The only moment of levity in this episode is when Jill’s friend tells Kevin that he’s doing his best, and Theroux looks like someone just lifted a boulder off of his chest.

That sigh of relief doesn’t last long. At a parade honoring the three-year anniversary of the disappearance, the Guilty Remnant show up and a brawl breaks out. I felt twinges of discomfort watching pitiful Kevin have to beat townspeople trying to decimate the white-clad weirdoes that ran off with his wife. Later in the episode, I felt ten times worse watching him desperately plead with his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) to come home. It’s heart-wrenching stuff, but I’m not sure if it qualifies as entertaining.

I will say that I’m interested and just as curious as everyone else at how the Pope and Gary Busey could both be disappeared. It couldn’t be the Rapture if so-and-so’s asshole brother-in-law is gone, could it? Knowing Lindelof, we definitely will not get an answer, but perhaps we’ll find out what’s going on with the mysterious Wayne and the equally puzzling Guilty Remnant. It looks like Liv Tyler’s Meg will get a firsthand look, after she leaves her husband-to-be to join the GR at the end of the episode. I’m curious to see more of this post-Rapture, or what ever you want to call it, world, where teenagers play spin the bottle, but with “Burn,” “Choke,” and “Fuck,” as options, and where dogs are going as mad as the television pundits, scientists, and preachers desperate to have some solid explanation.

The Leftovers is like submerging yourself in a pool of cold water: it is chilling, sharp, uncomfortable, and it is quite possible that someone is at the other end screaming under the water so they wont be heard. But maybe there’s something lurking at the bottom of this frigid darkness, the only question is whether we keep swimming or take a cue from the Guilty Remnant and stop wasting our breath. 

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3.5 out of 5