'The Leftovers' series premiere recap: Will the show's dark tone alienate viewers?

'The Leftovers' centers on a world in which two percent of the world's population disappeared. 'The Leftovers' will most likely fascinate some but divide its audience.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO/AP
'The Leftovers' stars Justin Theroux.

With The Leftovers marking Damon Lindelof’s latest venture into television and storytelling, it seems he remains undaunted by the challenge of creating another fictional universe in which a gigantic, potentially unsolvable mystery plays a considerable role. 

This time, however, he is joined by author and screenwriter Tom Perrotta in an effort to transition his novel about a world still reeling from a Rapture-like event that saw two percent of the world’s population vanish in an instant. And yet, despite the myriad genre storytelling possibilities contained within such a concept, the series – like the novel it is based on – wisely pushes the questions of “Why?” and “What really happened?” aside to better focus on the fractured lives of its many characters, as they deal with the enormous implications of such an event by wondering: How can we ever begin to move on?

Stories that are ultimately about grief, shock, and the horrible things that sometimes happen to basically good folks can be something of a hard sell – which makes The Leftovers‘ unique hookparamount to attracting viewers. At the same time, the level of interest that may arise from positing such an enormous question as “What if something like the Rapture actually happened?” can generate a level of expectation in some that, as far as the pilot is concerned, will go unfulfilled.

There is a very specific, slightly narrow emotional scale on which the series is operating; one that is unrelentingly bleak and impenetrably dark – even in the stark light of day – and will likely alienate those expecting a probing of the mystery serving as catalyst for the narrative. But for those with whom the story’s tone resonates the most, it will likely do so on a powerful level.

Essentially, The Leftovers takes what would normally be a blockbuster-sized event – a global catastrophe – and shrinks the narrative around it down to focus on the residents of one small East Coast town. But the series also shrinks potential grandiose elements down to a base emotional (and maybe even the spiritual) level, eschewing the sprawling science fiction tropes and elaborate mythologies that were a boon to (and ultimately the bane of) Lost and, as evidenced by his now defunct Twitter feed, Lindelof himself.

After a tense prologue in which the audience bears witness to what might be considered the miserable banality of everyday life just before the Departure takes place, the narrative jumps forward three years, into a world in which many would give all their remaining days for just one more spent in the comfort of such ordinariness.

The Earth has continued to spin, society has, on the surface, returned to normal, and yet nothing feels right. Those left behind are wracked by unanswerable questions that only make the scars of unbelievable emotional and psychological trauma all the more pronounced. Politicians harangue scientists for the lack of viable explanations; students are encouraged to pray in schools. Others abandon their lives entirely to take up with a silent, chain-smoking cult clad all in white known simply as the Guilty Remnant, or seek solace (for a substantial fee) in the arms of a man who assures those willing to pay he can “hug the pain out of people.”

The series primarily follows the Garvey family, headed up by Justin Theroux as Kevin, the chief of police in the fictional small town of Mapleton. In this post-Rapture world, the Garveys are a special case: It seems the family remained physically intact following the Departure, but was irreparably fractured in its aftermath. Kevin’s wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined the ranks of the Guilty Remnant, while his son, Tom (Chris Zylka), works for the mysterious and menacing Wayne (Paterson Joseph) – or He Who Can Heal Through Hugs. That leaves Kevin and his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) to attempt the seemingly impossible feat of carrying on as a family – which they seem to excel in failing at.

Late in the episode, a drunken Kevin sits in a bar, chatting up the woman from the prologue who lost her infant son, and utters what has become the series’ tag line of “We’re still here.” The phrase serves as both a newfound credo and a depressing reminder that even though the event is re-branded a “miracle” by some and those who vanished are ceremonially referred to as “heroes,”acknowledgement of a continued existence is about all anyone is truly capable of mustering.

As a result, there’s a hint of madness in everyone and in every encounter; it churns just below the surface and manifests in sometimes startling, sometimes depressingly numb ways that directorPeter Berg captures through lingering close-ups, awkward silences, and traumatic events that take place just off the edge of the screen.

For much of the episode, Berg’s depth of field is remarkably shallow; it creates a claustrophobic intensity that is exemplified in how Kevin sees and experiences things that neither he nor the audience knows the full extent of, let alone whether any of it amounts to something significant. Berg lets the pressure from the uncomfortable restrictions he’s set in place to build throughout the episode, only allowing the visual limitations to expand seconds before a melee breaks out when the threatening silence of the Guilty Remnant causes the roiling tension to finally boil over in a blast of violence.

Beyond the madness and the grief, The Leftovers connects its characters through a unifying curiosity, even though many have already pushed past the notion that true clarification will ever be had. And yet, despite that, many remain reluctant to accept the go-ahead to move on. As Chief Garvey says, “Nobody’s ready to feel better.”

And so that is where Lindelof, Perrotta, and Berg leave their audience: contained in a tightening sphere of anguish and pent-up anger. That place will undoubtedly lead to frustration in some viewers, who will find it hard to maintain an interest in such persistent sorrow, and especially the passively judgmental and seemingly ubiquitous of the Guilty Remnant (regardless of the terrific performances of Brenneman and Ann Dowd).

And while the potential audience may be limited due to the series’ tone, subject matter, and propensity for dog shootings, those who are able to connect with the story, the characters, and most of all, the precise emotional tenor, will be rewarded with a series more interested in the emotional, psychological response to an earth-shattering event than in the relentless pursuit of answers as to why it happened. The binary opposition of uncertainty versus concreteness has divided viewers of Lindelof’s work in the past, but more so than anything else he’s doneThe Leftovers is poised to be as spellbinding as it will be divisive.

Kevin Yeoman blogs at Screen Rant.

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